TAKING LIFE SERIOUSLY Through the years, I have discovered that many of us have a rather mechanical view of life. That is, we believe that life is like the candy machine down at the office. You put in your money, push the buttons, and out drops your bag of Skittles. And if you ended up with a Mars Bar instead, it’s because you hit B4 rather than B14. That’s the way life operates. Keep your nose clean, pay the bills, do the right thing, and you will get the proper outcome every time. God is in his heavens—and that means life is predictable. If you don’t have the result you anticipated, you failed to work through the right steps, you didn’t follow life’s directions. You messed up the recipe, and now, you are paying the price. But somewhere along the line, the unpredictability of life will catch up with your simplistic approach to life. You exercised, ate the right foods, took your cholesterol medication—and still had a heart attack at 55. You attended marriage enrichment classes, brought your spouse flowers on all the proper occasions, and your marriage still ended in divorce. You might call such moments in life “Job moments.” Remember Job? He was a good man, a fine father, a faithful husband—and he still lost his health, his wealth, and his family! In those “Job moments” our mechanical view of life breaks down—and we react in pretty typical ways. We first make a protest, and then we offer a question. THE PROTEST The protest is a simple one: “It’s not fair!” And, in all likelihood, we are right. No, it’s not fair that your husband died at 58 when another’s spouse lives to 90. It’s not fair that your child has a severe learning disability and struggles for decent grades when your neighbor’s child makes the dean’s list without hardly cracking open a textbook. No, it’s not fair that you eat like a bird and gain ten pounds while your workout partner at the gym gobbles burritos at Taco Bell and maintains the same weight as when he graduated from high school. No it’s not fair. It’s not fair that bad things happen to good people while good things happen to less deserving people. It’s not fair. THE QUESTION But after the protest comes a question: “WHY? My God, Why . . . ?” We ask that question, you see, because we have the notion that God hangs around this world to make everything immediately just. He’s there to make sure that good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people. And when it doesn’t work out the way we think it should, we ask our question: WHY? You and I, as God’s image—bearers, have a burning desire to make sense out of life. We are inveterate puzzle—solvers. We want to put the pieces together so they form a logical pattern. Hence, our WHY questions. Why the injustice? Why the pain? Why the unfairness? Do those questions have answers? Mark Twain is a famous American humorist and no friend to the Christian faith. He once wrote an essay entitled “Why the Fly?” In it, he pondered why God would create a creature that caused such misery to the human race. Why would God invent a creature that carries disease and lands on the eyes of starving children too weak to wave them away? Why? Why? Twain decides that the easiest answer is to just drop God out of the question altogether. So have others. Matthew Arnold, in his famous poem, “Dover Beach” writes that once the sea of faith was at full tide—an ocean surrounding society. But now, faith is receding, slow down the beach. Faith is retreating to low tide, where we hear its dull roar in the far distance. God has disappeared from practical view, and our ‘why questions’ no longer matter. And while we this morning regret the poem’s message, we know that for many that’s the answer to the ‘why’ questions. Just put God out of the picture. But does that really satisfy you? THE SURPRISING QUESTION I am going to suggest today that our only hope of addressing the ‘why’ questions of life is to bring our “whys” into close proximity with the ultimate “why” question of history. It is, of course, the “why” question that Jesus asks from his cross. It’s a “why” question that Jesus has the courage to round out, fill out and put in its starkest form: My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” What a question! Only days before the crucifixion, who would have thought that it would ever need asking? Indeed, the Sunday before Christ’s death, it seemed as though Jesus had the world on a string. He had ridden into Jerusalem to the triumphant cheers of crowds that couldn’t get enough of him. The waving palm branches testified that the crowds associated Jesus with great military heroes from the Jewish past. They hailed Jesus as nothing less than Israel’s King—King David’s ultimate Son, and heir to the throne in Jerusalem. They believed he one day would rule a kingdom that would fill the cosmos. There is no question that Palm Sunday morning is Jesus’ ultimate moment in the sun. Matthew even tells us that the impact of Jesus upon Jerusalem was so immense that “the whole city was shaken.” Matthew’s word for ‘shaken’ is the same word he’ll use to describe the earthquake that will shake the city after Jesus’ death. As Jesus rides through the city streets, people are in an emotional and spiritual uproar. They sense that something big is about happening. But just what this big thing is—well, that’s not so clearly understood! Things are not as they seem. The military coupe that the crowds anticipated isn’t forthcoming. Jesus ends up weeping over Jerusalem because he knows that all this hoopla missed the meaning of his mission. Jesus had reason to weep. In a matter of days, the crowds will forsake him. So will his closest disciples. In the Garden, the night before his death, one from his inner circle will even betray his identity to the temple police. THE ULTIMATE FORSAKENESS It would seem that Jesus was prepared for the forsakenness of the crowds. He anticipated the forsakenness of his own disciples. He never asked why they turned their backs on him. But not even Jesus seemed to fully anticipate what lay before him. For what would happen on Calvary would wring even from his lips that terrible question: “Why?” You know, Jesus spoke seven times from his cross. The word we look at today is the fourth word, the message that stands in the middle. I don’t think that’s by chance—for this is the word on which the very meaning of the cross turns. In fact, in two of the gospels, Matthew and Mark, Jesus speaks only once in their accounts. And in both gospels, it’s this fourth word that he utters. The setting of this fourth word is vastly different from the first three. The first three words have been spoken in the late morning sunlight. There has been a word of forgiveness, a word of pardon, a word that creates a community around the cross. But at noon, something terrifying happened on Golgotha that makes speech seem superfluous. “There was darkness in the land from the sixth hour until the ninth hour . . .” From noon to three—ultimate blackness. Now, how do you explain this? An eclipse? But this is a different kind of darkness. This is the darkness of which the prophet Joel speaks when he says: “The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood before the great and terrible day of the Lord. . . .” That day has arrived. The day of God’s wrath. The day when the horror that God will pour forth on the earth becomes so intense that God will literally hide from human eyes what is happening. It is the darkness of the end times that descends upon Golgotha on Friday afternoon. It is the darkness of God’s wrath against sin and evil. It is the darkness of hell. And near the end of those three hours, when all you could hear was the wracking breathing of the crucified as they sought to draw yet one more breath—near the end of these hours in a darkness that is so terrible it seems to envelope Calvary like a suffocating cloud—at the end of those hours you hear a cry. Maybe it is more a scream than anything else. It comes in the ordinary language of the people. Eli, Eli, lama sabbathani—My God, My God, have you forsaken me? MAKING SENSE OF THE CROSS Jesus’ cry opens a window on the suffering of a sinless Savior who is bearing the sin of his people. To some people, the very idea that the divine Father might ask his Son to bear the consequences of our sin seems out of place for a loving God. It sounds barbaric to suggest that Jesus, the Shepherd, suffered for the guilt of his sheep. Yet it is this cry that reveals the depth of our own hopelessness apart from God’s mercy. It is this cry that reveals just how serious God takes issues of justice and integrity. Even God himself, if he is to be just, cannot simply sweep our sin under the rug and ignore the lumps in the carpet. This cry from the cross reveals just how terrible is human failure and rebellion against God. You see, the ultimate depth of the suffering on Calvary was not defined by nails, or thorns, or scourging. The depth of the suffering was defined by the forsakenness of God. That is why this cry of Jesus from Golgotha was a cry from hell. You hear Jesus’ cry and you cannot help but ask—did Jesus really know what he was getting into when he went to Calvary? He knew about the cross. He knew about the cup of wrath. But did he fully understand the forsakenness by the Father? All through his ministry, Jesus had experienced desertion. He had watched as the audiences listened and then turned away. He had watched the Palm Sunday crowd melt into the background. He had watched his own disciples check out in the Garden. But through it all, there was one presence that never failed. In John 16, he even says to his disciples: “A time is coming … when you will leave me all alone. Yet I am not alone, for my Father is with me …” My Father is with me. Through the whole years of ministry, right down to the scourging in Pilate’s judgment hall, the presence of the Father had been with Jesus. The presence of the Father had been the strength by which he had carried the cross to Calvary. The strength by which he had bore the nails driven through hands and feet. And then, it happened. The sustaining presence became a consuming fire. The Father who has always come as the God of Love now comes as the God of wrath. The light by which Jesus walked was turned into the blackness of hell. Why has this happened? If you don’t believe that at the cross Jesus suffered the penalty for sin we deserved, you’ll consider Jesus’ cry from the cross as just the words of an overwrought sufferer. The kind of thing a person might say when he’s going through a clinical depression or having a panic attack. But the words of Jesus from his cross are more than a way of saying he’s emotionally and physically in the pits. The only way to take seriously Jesus’ cry is in the light of Paul’s words: Christ who knew no sin became sin for us. The cross is the place where Christ hung between earth and heaven, becoming cursed by God for us . . . Here is the deep mystery of Calvary. On the cross, The Sinless One becomes sin for his people. On the cross, Jesus hangs behind earth and heaven, rejected by both man and God. On the cross, for three hours, hell rises up from the depths to turn Golgotha in to a living Hades. “He descended into hell.” says the Apostle’s Creed. “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me,” Jesus cries. NOT MERELY A CRY, BUT A PRAYER But listen again to that word. It’s not what we would expect. It’s not an announcement to the crowd. It is a prayer to God. In this moment of his greatest suffering, Jesus will still reach out to the Father. Even when the Father must turn away his Son, the Son still clings to the one he calls “MY GOD.” The great victory at Calvary, my friends, is not just over physical suffering. The great victory of Jesus at Calvary is a victory over Even from the very pit of hell itself, Jesus will not curse his God and die! Even in this moment of darkness, Jesus will cling in hope to his God! And in the moment when the prayer is uttered, the darkness lifts. The end of Calvary’s journey is in sight. FROM THE DEPTHS I CRY TO YOU, O GOD Now, when I put Christ’s WHY question next to my own WHY questions, I still don’t come up with the neat answers I’d like as to why I go through times of trouble. But I do know that my ‘why’ questions are placed in a new context. For those who know Christ Jesus as their Savior understand that their ‘why’ questions are now offered to a Savior who by that very question put the immensity of divine grace and love on display. Because of what Christ groaned on Calvary, I know that even when I’m camping out in my own mini—hell, God is with me. “Why have you forsaken me?” we ask God. And when we look for an answer through the lens of the gospel, we find God saying: “I haven’t forsaken you. Nor will I. Not after what I have done in my Son to hold on to you.” A few Lenten seasons ago, I walked with a family through their own mini—hell of suffering. I received a phone call from a friend in Kalamazoo. I asked how he was. “He replied, ‘Just fair.’” His thirty year old son was killed in a car accident, his body burned beyond recognition. Dental records from his army service days had to be retrieved to make a positive ID. His son left behind a wife and two kids. He wanted to know whether I could do the funeral. I said, “Of course I can.” We met together and we talked. We talked about how we are held up by divine arms, even when life is falling apart. We talked about how, when everything is all wrong, yet something down deep in our lives is still all right. We talked about what Jesus Christ and his suffering meant in such a time as this. And then my friend said to me, “We have an awesome God . . .” And he meant it. How can we confess that we have an awesome God when we are going through times of such personal suffering? It’s not merely because God is bigger than us, and more powerful than us, and knows so much that he would never lose if we ever matched wits against him. No. What makes him so awesome is that the God we worship knows what it means to lose a Son. And the Son who cried out from a cross of pain refused to let go of the Father even when he bore the burden of our deepest guilt. It is because of what Jesus has experienced that Paul can say to us in the midst of our why questions: “There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, . . . nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord . . . “ That is why Paul can say regardless of the roads we travel, “we are troubled on every side, but not distressed, we are perplexed, but not in despair, we are persecuted but not forsaken, cast down, but not destroyed . . .” Maybe you heard the story of the little boy who went with his Father to a high hill one day. The father encouraged the boy to look around and then asked him what he saw. He said: “I see hills and fields and flowers and trees.” The father asked him what he saw beyond that. He said: “I see the place where the earth and sky seem to meet.” The father tried to explain what the horizon was, and he ended by saying: “Son, the love of God is greater than all that.” The little boy looked around at the horizon that encircled him and then he looked at his father and said: “If the love of God is all around us, then we are right in the middle of it, aren’t we?” Yes, we are. Right in the middle of God’s love.