Something Worse Than Death
"Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani" is the 4th Word from the cross. Either mockingly or ignorant of Aramaic the bystanders don't understand what Jesus cries out. Do you? He's not calling for Elijah. He's calling to God about something worse than death.
First, let this be firm in your mind. This really did happen to Jesus. Don't dismiss this scornfully as I've heard some do: O like God can forsake Himself. Only a Modalist could say that. Only one who held the Early Church heresy that Father, Son, and Spirit are only 3 modes of existence of the one God. No, they are 3 distinct Persons. The Father is God; the Son is God; the Spirit is God. Yet the Father is not the Son or the Spirit; the Son is not the Father or the Spirit, and the Spirit is not the Father or the Son. And this cry doesn't mark the death of the God-Man, but something worse. Only the damned in hell experience it but they for eternity. As God, Jesus could in a mere blink of an eye experience eternity (Giertz, To Live with Christ, 271). Yes, Jesus goes through an eternity of damnation in 3 hours of time.
Jesus is in the outer darkness unbelief is cast into where there is nothing but weeping and gnashing of teeth. He's in the flames the Rich Man is who begs for just a drop of water to relieve his torment. Jesus is in the "everlasting fire prepared for the Devil and his angels" (Mat. 25:41). Jesus is in the abyss of demons that is so vile that they would rather be sent into pigs than go here (Lk. 8:32). Jesus is in the Second Death, the Lake of Fire. All the darkness, flames, and separation from God is compressed into 3 hours. This is the ultimate result of bearing the sins of all times and peoples; of being made sin; of being a sacrifice to remove wrath. Here's what happens to the entire world's shame and disgrace.
Right here. This moment in time when Jesus cries out, "My God, My God why have You forsaken Me" is the root of all pain. Even when we say something is excruciatingly funny, we're really talking about Christ's cross. Excruciating literally means 'out of the cross'. The root of extreme pain is 'to crucify'. Cruciare has the general sense of torture (A Browser's Dictionary, 123). Isaiah saw 700 years before that Jesus would suffer innocently saying that it was because of our rebellion that He was pierced. He wrote in Is. 53: "He was crushed for the guilt our sins deserved. The punishment that brought us peace was upon Him, and by His wounds we are healed" (5). Again, "The Lord says, it was My will that He should suffer; His death was a sacrifice to bring forgiveness'" (10, GNT). Even pagan Plato, 300 years after Isaiah, and not in contact with the OT Church, saw this. Plato asks us to imagine a perfectly righteous man in a monstrous world. He would be bound, scourged, and finally impaled (the Persian equivalent of crucifixion) (Lewis, Psalms, 104).
Goodness enfleshed hangs in utter darkness. He is "separated from all the good, all the comfort, and the communion with God that we have even in our most difficult time of suffering" (Giertz, To Live with Christ, 271). How many people have said to me facing death, loss, disease: How do people who don't believe in God do this? Jesus does it as one who not only believes in God but is God, but is in hell anyways. The 19th century spiritual that is based on the repeated question "Were you there when they crucified my Lord?" does catch the appropriate response even though none of us where there: "Oh, sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble."
This cry from Jesus is so etched in the minds of disciples that they recorded it in the Aramaic He cried out in. It marks something worse than dying and death happening to Him. And make no mistakes: This should happen to you for your sinfulness. Before we do a thing wrong, we're a bad odor to God. Like Pig-Pen wherever we go a cloud of stink surrounds us that smells to high heaven. We're born in a state of sinfulness. Eph. 2:3 says that we're by nature children of wrath not of God. God naturally is wrathful towards our sinfulness. You won't like Him when He gets angry, but we foolishly fear the Incredible Hulk more than we do the real God. And on top of our odor, our individual sins call for God's judgment, call for God to forsake us, to turn away from us, to punish us. How many times have I said that I am amazed how mad I can get at another sinner who slights me, hurts me, pains me, but I don't think the Holy God should or even can get that mad at me? Tremble at that error I should.
A German Lutheran pastor who weathered WWII as a pastor in Germany, though a liberal, is the only one I've ever read who pointed out this: We don't cry out to God, "My God why do you forsake Me?" No, we have to drag His name into the mud instead by calling the world to witness how bad God mistreats us: We ask the world, "Where is God?" Or we ask, "How can God allow my suffering?" Jesus doesn't say to the people who stood gaping: "My Father has forsaken Me." We do (Thielicke, Trilogy, 180). The holy, perfect, innocent Son keeps it between God and Himself. We drag God before the world. You hear this after manmade tragedies like shootings or God ordained natural disasters: "How can a loving God let this happen?" How could a judging, wrathful God not? How could the God who promised to punish every sin, every disobedience, every sin of commission and omission not bring on my nightmares and even worse?
We could end the sermon here and then stream away from the cross as they did on Good Friday, beating our breast. If God does this to His only beloved Son, what will He do to me? But this is not where God leaves things. Last night in Abide with Me, we confessed that God has not left me as often as I have left Him and we asked that before our dying eyes He hold His cross. Why? Because the cross, particularly the crucifix, testifies that something worse than death did happened to Jesus and can't happen to you in Him. Seven years ago I brought up the sad case of the great 19th century hymn writer William Cowper. I bring him to you attention again on this dark night of your sins and sinfulness.
He penned lines you've drawn great comfort from: "There is a fountain filled with blood drawn from Emmanuel's veins; And sinners plunged beneath that flood lose all their guilty stains" (157:1). And, "Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,/ But trust Him for His grace;/ Behind a frowning providence/ He hides a smiling face" (514:4). And, " Poor though I am, despised, forgot,/ Yet God, my God, forgets me not;" (TLH, 534:5). But his 70 years of life were plagued by multiple bouts of despondency lasting months at a time. They stemmed from believing he was "reprobated by God" (TLH Handbook, 403). We don't used the verb 'reprobated' now. It means "rejected as worthless" (Merriam-Webster).
But isn't that how it should be for us who've earned, deserved with our fallen life something worse than death? Well, that's how it will be if you end where the 19th century spiritual does: With the Lord laid in the tomb. And yes, if you end there you should tremble. This is what Cowper struggled with. In the last year of his life he wrote the melancholic poem The Castaway about a man falling overboard on a round the world voyage. But he writes it as the one so lost. He describes struggling like a drowning man who "...waged with death a lasting strife,/ Supported by despair of life." He notes how useless those around him were: "Yet bitter felt it still to die/ Deserted, and his friends so nigh." He admits in the end that he is really writing about himself saying, "But misery still delights to trace/ Its semblance in another's case." Finally, he ends with these haunting words bringing together the sailor lost in 1699 and himself in 1799, "We perished, each alone:/ But I beneath a rougher sea,/ And whelmed in deeper gulfs than he."
Resist the devil's lie, and that of world and flesh too, that God having forsaken His only beloved Son for your sins, for your sake, can turn around and do that to you. That would be saying: it wasn't finished. The veil separating God from man in the temple hasn't been ripped in two. Matthew 27 is wrong. Graves weren't opened, and many bodies of saints weren't raised today. The one crucified to hell and death was someone less than God the Son. For if it's the death of God, if it 's the Blood of God shed here, if it's His suffering, bleeding, damning and dying than it's worth an eternity of sin and sinners.
Regardless of how you feel, how tangible the forsakenness set against it the cross of Christ, His orphaned cry, His hanging in the outer darkness innocent, pure, chaste being punished in place of sinners of all times and kinds. But you got to get from that cross in 30 A.D. to you in 2022. The Reformed do this by faith. They weren't there when they crucified the Lord, but they go back there by faith. We go back in reality. I should say Jesus comes back to us. After He gave His life on the cross, "His side was opened, from which blood and water ran out. Hereby are signified both Sacraments, through which, along with the preaching of the Word," sinners are gathered to Jesus (Gerhard, History Suffering, 303). That Water right back there proves I can't be forsaken by God because it testifies I've been clothed with Christ. The Absolution proves my sins are separated from me as far as east is from west in Jesus' name and woe be to he, even me, who tries to put the two together again. And the Body and Blood on this Altar and in your mouth, certifies that your God has put away your sins forever and for good. You don't invite enemies to dinner. Especially when you're serving the Body and Blood of your Son for forgiveness, life, and salvation.
19th Century Irish author, Oscar Wilde, a flamboyant homosexual who converted to Catholicism on his death bed said, "A thing is not necessarily true because a man dies for it." How true. However, it is if God dies for it, and doubly so if He rises for it as well! A book on WWI has a chapter entitled "One Great Cry of Agony and Horror" (Unknown Soldiers, 57). That's all Jesus 4th Word will be unless you see that Jesus cried these words, so that you never have to. Jesus went through something worse than death, so that you might live in something better than life. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Good Friday (20220415); Fourth Word (Matthew 27:45-47