On the cross, Jesus stands in for us all. At some level, most of us have been taught this. For instance, you may have been taught that when Jesus cries out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” it is because He has been quite literally abandoned by God, because Jesus has taken on the sin of all humanity, and scripture assures us “God cannot look upon sin.”
What a monstrous thing to say about God. If that were true, God could never have reached out to us in the first place. If that were true, God couldn’t reach out to us NOW. Look at the problems the world has today: so many of them are human-made! God couldn’t look on us at all!
This is a position that’s been promulgated for centuries, but there’s no real scriptural basis for it. Yes, scripture tells us that Jesus “became sin who knew no sin, that He might become the righteousness of God for us” (II Corinthians 5:21) and that “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us” (Galatians 3:13); and Isaiah even predicted “Surely He has borne our grief and carried our sorrows. . . He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement for our peace was upon Him, and by His stripes we are healed” (Isaiah 53: 6-8). In one of our hymns we talk of Jesus suffering “the dreadful curse.” But these are statements about the burden under which He suffers for our sake, not about God’s rejection of Him as a consequence of that burden.
Those theologians who promote this idea—and counted among them are some of the greatest in Christian history—is for them to fall prey to, and to lead others to fall prey to, the misguided thinking of the Israelites, wandering and bitter in the desert, who said, “Is God among us—or not?”
It’s an expression of our deep suspicion, when we are lost or suffering or afraid, when we’re overwhelmed by our own inadequacy and the insuperable reality of our limitations, that the truth is that God does not love us—God doesn’t abide with us—God doesn’t care for us. Either we’re unworthy, or God’s unworthy; either God has abandoned us, or there is no God; but whatever it is, God’s forsaken us. We’re alone.
Let’s not denigrate this experience. It’s a very human experience, this sense of abandonment. The Israelites experience it in the desert, wandering and lost and mistrustful of this man Moses who has led them out of the frying pan and into the fire. You and I experience it in the dark nights of our souls, when suffering comes, or when we experience loss, or when we see the terrible suffering of the world around us, or when we face our very human limitations. “Is God among us—or not?” How can God be among us when we hear in Vladimir Putin’s speech echoes of Hitler’s speech at the Anschluss? How can God be among us when the disparity between rich and poor in our own nation is on a scale of twenty to one? How can God be among us when institutions fail us, when leaders lie to us, and we see morality and common decency and love of neighbor and the church itself become quaint and unimportant? How can God be with me when I face crises both spiritual and material and I call out for help and God doesn’t seem to hear me?
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
We wonder why Jesus would say such a thing. Didn’t He know that this was God’s plan? Didn’t He know that He would rise from the dead? Didn’t He know that God loves Him and would never abandon Him?
Well, let me ask you the same question. When you cry, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” isn’t there a part of you that knows God hasn’t forsaken you—that knows that there is life after death—that knows God loves you and never abandons you? But at that moment, what you feel is abandonment.
St. Stephen’s former pastor, Rev. Bill Jablonowski, used always to say, “If you don’t have doubt, you don’t have faith.” Faith is by definition not about knowledge, if we mean by knowledge “certainty.” Faith isn’t about certainty, but about something deeper and more profound, something that isn’t measurable or scientifically provable. And because of that, no matter how strong our faith is, no matter how deep our relationship to God is, we will face doubt in times of crisis. It is only human.
And Jesus was very, very human. Sometimes we get so wrapped up in His divinity that we forget His humanity, but He was most definitely human. A vast portion of the New Testament is about the human Jesus. We see Him experiencing the full range of human emotions and experiences. Nowhere is Jesus’ full humanity more fully on display than on the cross.
And it is on the cross that we see most profoundly what fully human faithfulness to God must look like.
Jesus’ cry of despair is real. But it is also a profound cry of faith in God. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” is the first line of Psalm 22. Jesus lived in an oral culture, and the Jews observing His death would know their psalms not by numbers, as you and I do, but by first lines, the same way scholars know the poems of Shakespeare or Donne or Emily Dickinson not by their numbers but by their first lines. But in those days, everyone would have know it, and they would have known immediately what psalm Jesus was referring to it, and they would have it memorized, and so immediately they would not only hear the words, but in their minds they’d run through the whole psalm. They’d note that the psalmist had said, “all who see me mock me; they make mouths at me and shake their heads and say, ‘commit your cause to the Lord; let him deliver you!’” and then they’d note that Jesus is surrounded by mockers saying, “He saved others; now let Him save Himself, if He is the messiah, the King of Israel!” They’d remember that the psalmist says, “My enemies divide my clothes among themselves, and for my clothing they cast lots,” and notice that the guards are gambling for Jesus’ cloak.
But they’d remember as well that the psalm doesn’t end on these dreadful, fearsome events, but that the psalmist refuses to give up on God. “God does not abhor the affliction of the afflicted,” he asserts. “God did not hide God’s face from me; He heard when I cried to Him.” And not only does God hear his cries in the midst of suffering, David asserts in the psalm; God also hears the cries of all in need. “The poor shall eat and be satisfied; all those who seek Him shall praise the Lord!” The world itself will be redeemed; “all the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord.” And not only that—there is a powerful implication that the dead shall be raised: “all the who sleep in the earth shall bow down; before Him shall bow all who go down to the earth; and I shall live for Him.”
The psalm to which Jesus referred would have meant this to Jesus’ listeners: I am in a time of doubt, and of suffering, and of need and desperation and death, AND I STILL TRUST GOD.
God did not forsake Jesus. Nor did Jesus loose faith in God. And God does not forsake us. In the end, Jesus stands in for us, not only because He died for our sins, but also, and perhaps more importantly, because at that desperate time He had faith—and so His great faith can stand in for our little faith; and His example of faith can be our example in our own times of doubt, suffering, and fear. In those times when we wonder, “Is God among us?,” Jesus’ answer from the cross is a resounding ‘yes!”