Tradition says that Jesus spoke seven words from the cross. That is what our worship service tonight is centered around: those seven last words that Jesus uttered. What we don’t always remember is that those seven last words are taken from four different gospels, written by four different people who, although inspired by God to write Jesus’ story, had different viewpoints about who Jesus was and what he came to earth to do. And so, it is beneficial for us to read the crucifixion account from each Gospel’s point of view, to see the differences in how they interpreted Jesus’ death on the cross. And since we’ve been working our way through the Gospel of Matthew this year, I would like to speak about Matthew’s account of how Jesus died.
According to Matthew, Jesus said only one sentence from the cross, and that sentence was actually a question, ripped out of Jesus’ throat just as the nails ripped through his flesh: “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” When Jesus uttered that desperate cry, he had already been hanging on the cross for about three hours, and this after a night when he had been tried, beaten, spit on, and then, early in the morning, had seen his people call for his death, had watched the Roman governor wash his hands of him, had been mocked with a purple robe and a crown of thorns, and then been nailed to the cross. There is a difference, I think, between knowing that you are going to die and then experiencing it, especially experiencing the cruelty that human beings can inflict on one another. Is there any wonder that Jesus would think that God had forsaken him in the midst of all of that suffering?
We wonder how Jesus, who was divine and who knew that this was going to happen to him, could still cry out and wonder how God had forsaken him. I don’t know the answer to that question; it is a holy mystery that we are left to ponder. But here we see Jesus in his full humanity, not afraid to cry out in his pain and his agony, to cry out to the God who has been with him his whole life and who now seems to have deserted him, and it is a witness to us as well. If even the Son of God on the cross felt free to cry out and wonder where God is in the midst of suffering, then so can we. When we are in the hospital after a surgery and we are in pain and fear despite the medications that we have received, we can cry out to God. When we who have been healthy our whole lives go to the doctor and discover that we have cancer that cannot be cured, we can rage at God and ask why God has forsaken us. When we are feeling alone and lost, we can cry out to God and ask where God is. If Jesus can do it, then certainly we who follow Jesus can do it as well.
And here is the good news: God hears our cries. It certainly didn’t seem like God was anywhere around on that day when Jesus was crucified. But if we look more closely at Matthew’s account, we will see signs of God’s presence. We look for God in the supernatural events that accompanied Jesus’ death: the ripping of the curtain in the temple from top to bottom; the earthquake and the splitting of the rocks; and the raising of the saints who had died (which only the Gospel of Matthew mentions). But even more than that, God was present in the women who stood by Jesus as he died: Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of James and John, as well as other women who were there. God was present in the man Joseph of Arimathea, who boldly went to Pontius Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus so that he might bury it in his own new tomb. God did not forsake Jesus on that day; God was with Jesus and suffered in him and with him.
That is good news for us as well. When we cry out to God and ask why God has forsaken us, the answer comes back that God does not forsake us. God is always with us through those times when we are lost, scared, and hurting. When we cry, God understands what we are feeling, intimately, and God weeps with us. God is with us in the community which surrounds us with love and prayer. God is with us always, and nothing—not even death—can separate us from that love of God, which is found in Jesus Christ, our Lord, who suffered and died for us on that cross.
This week, the cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris was partially burned in a fire that initial investigations have revealed to be connected to renovations that have been going on. It was heartbreaking to see this happen to such an old, old cathedral that is a marvel of architecture and engineering even today. But what was moving to me was to see the picture of the interior of the church, where, amidst all the rubble still on the ground, the cross on the altar still stood as a beacon shining in the dimness. That is what Jesus’ death on the cross means: we have a God who is near to us even when all seems lost. God suffers with us. God is still with us amidst the rubble that happens in our lives. God weeps with us. God loves us. And God gives us hope that this is not the end of the story. Look upon the cross tonight and see there your Savior. Look upon the cross and see how much Jesus loves you. Amen.