Immanuel's Orphaned Cry
The phrase "Immanuel's orphaned cry" comes from Elizabeth Barrett Browning's poem about hymn writer William Cowper who died years before she was born. Cowper wrote beautiful hymns of hope but was plagued with bouts of hopelessness all his life so much so that he became convinced he was forsaken by God. Brown's poem "Cowper's Grave" was written to show that only once had that orphaned cry ever been uttered and it was by Immanuel Himself who's name means "God with us." Browning believed that this cry delivered Cowper in the end; may it so deliver us tonight.
May it deliver us from worshiping at the altar of "Why?". We do that, at least I do. Why did this happen? Why didn't that happen? We ask "why me" unlike Kris Kristofferson sang it. And in the real tragedies of life the why question shouts into a well of despair and echoes endlessly off the walls and comes back into your ears as you kneel hopelessly at it's altar.
Jesus wasn't a devotee at the altar of Why but that word sprang from not only His lips but His heart and soul. And He didn't say it in a meek, whispered, or resigned voice. It says He, "cried out in a loud voice," and upward it went through the whelming clouds. Jesus asked "why" in His mother tongue. When the Spirit translates it into Greek, He uses a contraction of the words "in order that what might happen?" Or 'why' in the sense of "for what reason?" "For what purpose?" At the altar of Why you're never going to know for sure what was the reason or purpose. You'll come away from worship at the Altar of Why thinking you know why, only to find yourself later that night once more shouting down that bottomless well.
We do, however, know the answer to Jesus' why question because Scripture tells us. "Jesus was made to be sin." "He was the Lamb of God carrying away the sins of the world." He was the wrath removing sacrifice for the sins of the whole world. The Holy Father can't stand to be in the presence of sin. The Father receives us Prodigals because He turned away from the swine-smelling Jesus saying, "Get out of my sight I can't stand you." The King freely forgives our billion dollar debt because He disavowed His Son for owing it.
May "Immanuel's Orphaned Cry" deliver us from worshiping at the altar of Why and may it deliver us from thinking that we can be left behind. No not in that Tim LaHaye rapture, millennial nonsense, but that fear we think comes from our childhood years but really comes from eternal truth. Sinners ought to be forsaken, ought to be abandoned.
We fear the dark as children because we know deep down that darkness owns us. We fear being left alone because we know in our heart of hearts we deserve to be. Even the atheist, the agnostic, the person who hasn't read word one of Scripture knows that God ought to say to him, "Depart from Me; I never knew you." Excuse yourself all you want; reason away your sinfulness all you can; promise to do better from now on. None of this will stop that cold feeling from stealing over you that you deserve to be forsaken.
Jesus did not. In fact, Jesus was promised in Deuteronomy 31:8: "The Lord Himself goes before you and will be with You; He will never leave You nor forsake You." Joshua 1:5 says, "As I was with Moses, so I will be with You; I will never leave You nor forsake You." Deuteronomy 31 was spoken to Israel; Joshua 1 was spoken to Joshua. We know from Matthew 2 that Jesus is Israel and Joshua is just another spelling of Jesus. It was Jesus who had the promise to never be forsaken; it was Jesus who had the pledge never to be abandoned. And He never did anything in thought, word, or deed to warrant God taking back the promise. But I sure have; you sure did.
I have been places I had no business being right beside the Prodigal son in the land far away from my Father. I've done there what by no stretch of the imagination could be thought of as being done by someone inside the Father's house. I've done, even as an adult, what the teenager does in self-righteous rage. I've stomped my foot and said to God, "You're not my Father." Even then what we sing in Abide with Me remained true: "Thou hast not left me as oft as I left Thee." And hasn't God always had as we also sing there: "Tears for all woes, a heart for every plea?"
That's because rather than forsake us in our sinfulness, He forsook His only Son who He made to be our sin. The bitter, plaintiff, mournful Word from the Cross we hear tonight is proof positive that Father did forsake the Son. May what we pray in the hymn be what happens as a result of that, "Teach me by that bitter cry in the gloom to know Thee nigh."
And isn't that what our Lord has promised? "I will be with you always even to the very end of the age." Never does a sheep find himself in a place where there is not a Word from the Good Shepherd. Never is a sinner so dehydrated that the Waters of Baptism will not rehydrate his dried up bones. How can we ever be forsaken by the Body and Blood given and shed for us on Calvary when it's always in the Holy Communion with the command to "Take eat; take drink" and the promise this is "for you?"
May "Immanuel's orphaned cry" deliver us from worshiping at the altar of Why, from thinking that God the Father who left His only Son could ever leave us behind, and deliver us from thinking there's hell to pay. O there was hell to pay. And Scripture delineates when that happened. First it tells you that from the Noon to 3 PM, "darkness came over all the land." Luke tells you it was because the sun's light failed. Something momentous, something monstrous, something memorable was going down. This was no eclipse. This was no cloudiness, this was sun that most atheistic scientists confidently assure us will last for another 5 million years failing.
The eternal God is offended, angered, enraged at our sins. They aren't merely faults, failings, mistakes, just they way I am. They're vile iniquities, gross transgressions, brazen trespasses, un-payable debts. Whatever our sin may be, it is against the eternal God we've sinned. How can eternal wrath be satisfied? How can eternal rage be appeased? How can eternal debt be paid? With the prophet Micah we agonize, "Is the Lord pleased with thousands of rams? With 10,000 streams of oil? Do I give my first-born for my transgression? The fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?"
But Christians aren't alone in our agony over appeasing God. The Muslim tries with his absolute submission. The orthodox Jew tries by swinging a chicken over his head proclaiming "'This is my substitute; this is in exchange for me; this is my atonement'" (The Temple, 122-3). The unbeliever, disbeliever, atheist, or agnostic thinks he can do something to please that Nameless Something or worse Someone he hopes doesn't exist and will never meet. That dollar he gives to the homeless, his green living, meeting his own standard of good must mean something. Nope, unbeliever or believer none of our self-chosen works, worship, or sacrifices, mean squat to God.
No good work offered by a sinful man is anything but sinful. No blood from a sinner's vein does anything but stain. The good works of a perfect Man are different. The blood of a truly innocent Man is different, but O how horrible the sight. Isaiah saw Jesus, the Man who is God, hanging on the cross and said His face was marred beyond recognition. Women turned away in horror. Men beat their breasts in terror. It's like when Esmeralda opens her eyes and sees Quasimodo the Hunchback of Notre Dame. She "instantly closed them again, as if horror-stricken at the sight of her deliverer" (277).
Turn not away at the sight of your Deliverer. Let not His suffering eternal hell for all sinners during the 3 hours in which the sun failed, fail to shine its loving light on you. 3 PM is when the God who is with us uttered the cry that split heaven and earth, "Why have you forsaken Me?" That is the exact hour of the temple evening sacrifice. Jesus being in the deepest part of hell, deeper than sexual sinners, deeper the murderers, deeper than unbelievers, deeper than the men nailing the nails and the mockers mocking Him was the Sacrifice that God had been waiting for before the foundation of the world.
Let not this sacrifice, this suffering for you be wasted. Let not this 4th Word of the Cross go unused, un-depended on. Solzhenitsyn explains in a biting tone of why fellow prisoners stole from the dying: "What you take from a dying man is sweeter" (Gulag, II, 544). Take this Body given over unto death for all the sins you can think of and the many more you have forgotten and may it be to you as sweet as Bread. Take this Blood shed to cover unthinkable sins and the sins you can't stop thinking of and may it be you as sweet Wine.
A solider writing back from the WW I trenches to his mom says, "'I can see no excuse for deceiving you about these 4 days. I have suffered 7th hell. I have not been at the front. I have been in front of it" (Great War, 81). He wasn't in 7th hell, but Jesus was for you, and Jesus was out in front of the front. All God's arrows, lightening bolts, and pains that should have hit you for your sins hit Jesus instead. Let Jesus damning, sighing, and dying be for your saving, rejoicing, living. Let it be like the church fathers thought the pelican did for its young. They thought the pelican was sprinkling its own blood on its dead chicks to bring them back to life (Sufferings, Gerhard, 235). They didn't realize the chicks were sleeping and were awaken by the blood dripping from the fish the mother was bringing to feed them.
The Blood of the damned Jesus actually brings life to such dry bones as we. May Jesus one great cry of agony and horror testify to you, assure you that all the hell that needed to be paid for your sins or anyone else's was paid in full today. May "Immanuel's Orphaned Cry" deliver you from ever feeling or fearing that God can or has forsaken you. As Browning says in her poem: that happened only once, and it wasn't to you but for you. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Good Friday (20150403); Matthew 27: 45-46