Good Friday Homily
“At about three o'clock, Jesus cried out with a loud voice: 'Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?' which means, 'My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?'” These are the dying words of the Messiah according to Matthew's gospel, words known to most of us in a story familiar to all of us. It's easy, when studying well-trodden stories like today's, to slip into a mental and spiritual coma, assuming we already know all there is to know and have heard all there is to say. And to many, the cross centuries ago ceased to be a symbol of woe and grief, instead becoming a sign of hope and deliverance, which indeed it is for us who believe, a sign celebrated in every sanctuary and in hymns like Lift High the Cross later in this service. But the hope of the cross is an Easter thing, something we gentle readers haven't yet read at this stage of Matthew's gospel and should not rush towards until we've paid due attention to the gloom of today's readings. Here—on Good Friday—the cross stands as the terrible symbol the Roman Empire first meant it to be: a symbol of utter failure; of suffering and death; of a Messiah abandoned by his disciples. Christ has been killed on that ancient guillotine, undone by that archaic electric chair.
And the Messiah's final words grimly fit the scene: “My God, why have you forsaken me?” But why those words in particular? Jesus could have complained any way he chose. Knowing that Easter was on the way, he could have warned onlookers, “You haven't seen the last of me.” Wanting to give final encouragement to any who would hear, Jesus could have given one last decree or proverb. Of all the ways he could express himself, why does Jesus specifically cry, “My God, my God, why have your forsaken me?” Jesus is quoting Psalm 22, a Psalm of lament. And in ancient times, to quote the first lines of a poem was to quote the whole thing. So rather than fixate on Matthew's story only, I want to instead explore the Psalm Jesus spends his final minutes citing, to see why our Lord did so and what final words he has for us there.
The problem grieving the Psalmist is he's at the mercy of cruel and uncaring enemies. It's easy to read verses 6 and 7 of the Psalm and remember Christ's rigged trials before the Temple's high priests and Pilate: “I am scorned by others, despised by the people. All who see me mock me.” Christ was then taunted on the cross by scribes, priests, and even his fellow condemned with jeers of: “He saved others but cannot save himself! He called himself the Son of God, but he has no help from the Lord!” And in the same fashion, the author of Psalm 22 finds only mockery at the hands of his enemies, who likewise taunt: “Commit your cause to the Lord! Let him deliver you, if God really does love you.” And comparing his foes to savage bulls and ravenous lions, the Psalmist sees himself surrounded by deadly threats, just as Christ spent his final day encircled by the Temple's guards and Rome's legionaries. In Biblical times, one Israelite insult against non-Jewish foes was to call them “dogs.” Thus the Psalmist complains in his suffering, “Dogs are all around me, a company of evildoers encircles me.” In the same fashion, Christ's dying moments weren't spent surrounded by the faithful but encircled by the wicked and by the pagan warriors of Rome. The Psalmist and Jesus each find themselves attacked on all sides: spiritually, emotionally, physically, and more.
Psalm 22's lament goes further, however. Not only do menacing enemies surround him: the Psalmist weeps over the bodily damage his foes have done to him, saying, “I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint. My heart is like wax: it melts within my breast. My mouth is dry like a broken potshard, and my tongue sticks to my jaws from thirst. I am being laid in the dust of death.... [and then a bit later] My hands and feet have shriveled, and I can count all my bones.” The poem's pain is not just of the danger of scornful enemies but of bodily hurt: a starved, famished, and thirsty body with wounds and fainting. And Christ himself was likewise tortured, starved, beaten, and dragged down. And in Matthew's gospel when onlookers were about to quench his thirst with sour wine, another watcher stopped it and kept Christ's thirsting in hopes of seeing a spectacle, soulful compassion overruled by a foolish curiosity to see if Elijah would come save Jesus. And just as the pagan Roman soldiers, after nailing Jesus to the cross, left him naked, took his clothes, and gambled for his garments using lots, so too does the Psalmist complain that evildoers and Gentile dogs “divide my clothes among themselves, and for my clothing they cast lots.”
And yet this suffering in body and surrounding of mocking enemies is not the central complaint of this Psalm, not its primary grief. The weeping heart of this poem are the words Christ himself spoke: “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me? Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer, and by night, but find no rest.” It's not the physical pain or social grief that most troubles the speaker but the lingering question of: “Why isn't God doing anything? Why am I suffering alone?” And the high points of the poem make this separation even worse. Looking back to the past of Israel, the Psalmist notes: “In you, O God, our ancestors trusted. They trusted, and you delivered them. To you they cried and were saved. In you they trusted and were not put to shame.” Looking back at his own life, the speaker even remembers how God has kept him personally safe all along. So we're given a hopeful view on present reality from the past, only to find the next line reading “But I'm a worm, not even human,” as if to say those promises and assurances of old are nice... but still you aren't helping me now, so there must be something wrong with me. This picture of God's comfort and protection in the past only make the present more miserable, more doubtful... because if God doesn't change, then what is wrong with me that I suffer so? Why is God no longer answering my prayers? Why the utter silence in reply to my tears? I can only imagine Christ on the cross suffered similar sorrows amid all the jeering and taunts and isolation. And so the central request of the Psalm is most of all asking for the presence of God: “But you, O Lord, do not be far away! O my help, come quickly to my aid!”
The sorrows of Jesus on that original Friday we now call “Good”... they are perfectly captured in the words of the Psalmist poet. But Psalm 22 was written centuries before Christ walked the Earth. And so while its complaint is taken up by Jesus and thereby given newer, more cosmic significance, these are words spoken by an ordinary person as well, a person just like you or me. Because we all know what it's like to suffer. The younger people I talk to know well how it feels to face jeers and mockery from all sides. My aging congregants likewise know the sense of one's body weakening and growing faint. Everyone knows what it's like to feel far from God, to wonder if your prayers are going unheard, to wrestle with lingering doubt and fear. We rarely admit such things, however, because we delude ourselves into thinking good Christians must have their lives all together, be respectable, and not most admit to those common and ordinary human experiences. Jesus on the cross names what every mortal dreads to admit, and he bodily endures every woe the poem details, with his body, his heart, and his spirit.
But there's a twist here. As we've seen, Christ's life mirrors this Psalm to a T, suffering just as the Psalmist describes as if the poem itself were a form of prophecy. Jesus on the cross quotes Psalm 22 to show the pattern of his sacrifice. But the poem does not end in despair or death, and so neither does the story of Jesus, and so neither does ours. Again, up until verse 21, Psalm 22 is essentially the tragedy of the cross set to poetry. But then in verse 22, a shift occurs, as God's help at lasts arrives. “From the horns of the wild oxen you have rescued me. I will tell of your name to my brothers and sisters; in the midst of the congregation I will praise you... For God did not despise or abhor the affliction of the afflicted; he did not hide his face from me, but heard when I cried to him. The poor shall eat and be satisfied; those who seek him shall praise the Lord. May your hearts live forever! All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord.” By quoting Psalm 22's sorrows, Jesus explains not only his sufferings... but his hope amid pain and grief as well. Just as the Psalmist at first laments God has abandoned him, only now to turn his cry into a song of hope as the Lord at last delivers him from evil... so too will Christ's lament on the cross turn into a glad celebration of rescue. So too do ours through Jesus. For though Christ is abandoned on the cross for now, in quoting this Psalm of despair turning into hope, Jesus likewise shows that this is not the end of his story, bleak though it may be for now. Deliverance will indeed arrive. And ultimately, Jesus is pointing out what his work on the cross will accomplish, for Psalm 22 ends by pointing to you and me thousands of years later: “To God, indeed, shall all who sleep in the earth bow down; before him shall bow all who go down to the dust, and I shall live for him. Posterity will serve him; future generations will be told about the Lord, and proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn, saying that he has done it.” We are that posterity, that people not yet born... the ones who hear this story of the cross, of death and suffering and God-forsakenness. But Christ knows—even dimly through the pain—that this will achieve the Lord's work, that one day a people not yet born may look back to these sorrows and pain and grief and say with amazement, “He has done it!” That this day of despair would one day be called “Good.”
But right now, on the cross of Good Friday, we don’t get to see that. We're still in the despairing first half of Psalm 22. The rejoicing must wait ‘til Easter Sunday. Today God does hide his face: Jesus will suffer, be despised, be disdained, and descend to dead. And so when we despair, when we are mocked or suffer or even die… Jesus is with us. Just as the Psalmist was delivered and as Jesus rose again from the dead, we know that when we are in the pit that God will lift us up to life. Even in those moments where the words “My God, why have you forsaken me?” become our own, we can hope and know that God is with us even then. The immortal God was wounded for our sins, that we might find life in him. And so we echo the words of the centurion, affirming that “Truly this man is God’s son.” Amen.