What do you do when God leaves you hanging?

“From noon on, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. 46And about three o’clock Jesus cried with a loud voice, ‘Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?’ that is, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’”

| Matthew 27.45-46, NRSV

“Has anyone seen God?”  Jill M. Hudson writes in Congregational Trauma: caring, coping and learning, “Trauma can strike anywhere any time and the church is generally ill- prepared to respond.” Most of us were taught that God is omnipresent, that the Divine was always around here somewhere, that God would come from up there if we just cried out.  God was always within earshot and heard every prayer.  In fact, we sing that God is “just a prayer away.”

But what happens when you expect God to be somewhere and God does not show up?  When you are at your worst and You need to see God at God’s best?  When you are left holding the bag, left holding the cross, left alone to suffer for a good cause?  God doesn’t come but the questions do and they are many.

“Did You forget about me?  I thought that we were in this together, God.  This was not a part of the plan, was it?  Did I miss a meeting?  Are You not going to come to my defense, to my aid?  Do You not hear me calling You?  Are You going to say anything?  Where is my God now?”

God who seemingly backs out of the deal and lets us take the fall, we want to just forget about it, to put it out of our heads and to put our well- laid plans out of their misery.  I know that God told me to do this or to be here.  Or, how could this happen to me or happen to me here?  “Has anyone seen God?  I need to have a word with the Manager of human affairs.”

Because something doesn’t feel right.  My life is not turning out right, not quite like how we planned.  We don’t want to talk about it but we need to address the One who put us up to this.  Doing God’s work will get you into trouble; yes, they still shoot the messengers.  And Jesus didn’t make excuses for this; instead, he cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me” (Matt 27.46, NRSV).  Like the psalmist, hung out to dry, still Jesus, you and I are hung up on God.

***

Jesus has taken care of business and home, asked for God’s forgiveness for his judge, jury and executioners and for John to take care of his mother.  He has made a promise to put up a thief for eternity at God’s “Air B & B.”  No reservation and without hesitation, Jesus does not call ahead but makes an executive decision because they always have a spare bed: “Today, you will be with me in paradise.”[1]

Howard Hageman writes in We Call This Friday Good,

“Now the teaching of Jesus ceases to be theory and becomes reality.  In the Sermon on the Mount, our Lord commands us to love our enemies; on the cross, he obeys his own command.  In the Sermon on the Mount, our Lord tells us to do good to those who use us spitefully; on the cross, he follows his own teaching.  In the Sermon on the Mount, our Lord instructs us that forgiveness is the hallmark of discipleship; on the cross, he illustrates his own instruction.

I have often thought that if I had any doubt as to the divinity of Jesus Christ, this would be the place at which it would be resolved.  I can see how a (person) might doubt Jesus in spite of his virgin birth.  I can understand how a (person) might examine the record of his miracles and yet not be convinced of his deity.  But I cannot understand how anyone could go to the foot of his cross, listen to his word of forgiveness, and not confess with the pagan captain who was in charge of the crucifixion, ‘Truly, this was the Son of God.’”[2]

Jesus has done everything right— even in the face of death.  He has been faithful to God and done nothing to deserve this gruesome punishment.  He is a good person, a sinless man.  He wouldn’t hurt a fly and is the nicest person you’d ever want to meet.  He’d give you the shirt off of his back and his very last.  Jesus has done everything according to God’s plan so things should turn out right, right?

No, he wound up on a cross.  But it wasn’t his fault; Jesus didn’t have it coming; we did.  “He became sin who knew no sin.”[3]  He didn’t deserve it.  He did not get himself into trouble.  He wasn’t in the wrong place at the wrong time.

No, bad things do happen to good people.  In fact, a very bad thing can happen to a perfect person.  Exhibit one and only— Jesus.  Yet, our theologies would suggest that those who suffer did something to deserve it.

We are no different than his disciples who asked, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’  To which Jesus replied, ‘Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s work might be revealed in him.”[4] Jesus said it and we still don’t see it.  Instead, we point fingers like Job’s friends, saying, “You must have done something wrong!”

If you were righteous, if you are “blessed and highly favored,” then everything works out in your favor.  Just wait and see.  God will come and put a stop to this. God will come down and save the day any minute now.  Cue the dramatic theme music.

But God doesn’t and the tone has changed.  Jesus’s flesh has been pummeled and pounded.  Jesus has been nailed down and now he cannot pin God down.  Has anyone seen, God?

Jesus has been about his Father’s business but now he needs his partner and God is seemingly nowhere to be found.  They had a deal and Jesus has kept up his end of the bargain.  Jesus knows what They agreed to but God wouldn’t take it this far.  They talked about it but They didn’t rehearse it.

Jesus is looking all around, scanning the crowd turned angry mob.  The disciples have left Jesus to fend for themselves.  They are hiding behind locked doors, trying to scrape together money for fake passports.  They have to get out of town.  They said they wanted a new life with Christ but now they want to start over with no connection to Jesus.  They will not take the fall for this.  They will not go down with him.

Jesus looks up to an empty sky.  God has left the earth and seemingly the side of Jesus with reckless abandon.  Three in One, perhaps, Jesus feels less like himself.  Someone is missing.  “Are you there, God?  It’s me, Jesus.”[5]

We recite his words and the model prayer but now it seems that Jesus can’t “get a prayer through.”[6]  Jesus is experiencing what St. John of the Cross called, “the dark night of the soul.”  Lights out.  The question, “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” could be asked of God.

Jesus does not attempt to “fake it until he makes it.”  Blood dripping from his head and nose to his chest, he is not “too blessed to be stressed.”  He is the word made flesh and yet there is no word from God.  Jesus sees no need to cover for the absence of God.  Jesus does not stall, make excuses for or offer apologies.  Jesus will not “put a praise on it.”    He does not turn to the crowd and declare, “God may not come when you want Him but He’ll be there right on time.”

Jesus can’t turn to his neighbor and give them a high five; both are dying beside him.  And Jesus definitely looks like what he’s been through.  Yes, Jesus calls much of our cultural mantras and ecclesial habits into question.  The Body of Christ, we would do well to take in his perspective “down at the cross.”

Jesus cries out: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  Why would You do such a thing?  And of all the people to leave alone, Jesus is God in the hands of angry sinners.[7]  He calls it like he sees it and Jesus doesn’t see God.  In fact, when Jesus needs God most, God is nowhere to be found.  God AWOL, that is absent without leave, God has left the building.

Jesus has met his match.  He is meeting his end and he cannot find a friend.  “What a friend we have in Jesus” but what of God?  They had been talking up until now.  Jesus was finishing God’s sentences.  They were inseparable up until now.  Jesus said, “If you’ve seen me, you’ve seen the Father.”[8]  Now, God ghosts Jesus.

Blaine McCormick and David Davenport’s new revised version of Psalm 23 is fitting:

 “I am a sheep without a shepherd.  I do not know whom to follow— and I am utterly in want.

I am empty.  Nothing satisfies.  Nothing refreshes me.  I find no real fulfillment.  No lasting security.  No rest.

I feel like a soul—totally, irretrievably depleted.”[9]

Jesus is left high and dry.  This betrayal by God has left a bad taste in Jesus’s mouth.

And we know this because of his lament, his cry of dereliction, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me” (Matthew 27.46)?  All battered, bruised and bleeding, this is no time to save face or to put on a brave face.  No, Jesus will cry out.

This is not about protecting God’s image or maintaining the Divine record of the God who makes no mistakes and can do anything but fail.  Jesus laments and lodges a complaint.  “What kind of God are You to leave me at a time like this?  Why, for what cause, under what circumstances do You find it appropriate, for what reason would You choose to leave me?”

Jesus knows the plan and he still struggles with the process.  He is in on the grand scheme of things but it doesn’t make the cross easier to bear.  Jesus doesn’t hide this from you.  He tells his disciples, “In this world, you will have trouble.”[10]  “In the world, you face persecution.”[11]

During this global pandemic due to COVID-19, there are those who are suffering and have been left to their own defenses.  Truth be told, it is suffering compounded, bad made worse, hell and highwater.[12]  It can be difficult to keep the faith as their world falls apart.  Don’t judge them.  Then there are others of us who are limping but moving right along, sweeping pieces of the sky from the floor—because this is not the first time that our world has fallen apart.  Don’t be amazed; we simply bear witness to the resurrection.

“The author and finisher of our faith”[13] felt abandoned and questioned God’s will for his life in the garden of Gethsemane and God’s absence while he suffered on the cross.  You also don’t lack faith and it does not make you less of a believer because you have questions.  In fact, it is very Christlike.  You are not alone in your questions and in your lament.  Jesus is right there with you.  Feel free to repeat after him.   He knows how it feels when things don’t add up, when you did everything right and everything turned out wrong, when your intention was good and your motivations were pure, and now your faith hangs in the balance, when God tells you to be somewhere and then doesn’t show up, when you surrender all and when God leaves you hanging.  Amen.

_________

[1] Luke 23.43

[2] Howard G. Hageman, We Call This Friday Good, (Philadelphia, PA: Muhlenberg Press, 1961), 11.

[3] Second Peter 3.16

[4] John 9.2-3, NRSV

[5] This is a play on Judy Blume’s wildly popular book, Are you there, God?  It’s me, Margaret.  A personal childhood favorite of mine.

[6] It is believed that some persons are able to get a hearing and perhaps an answer from God.  This expression is used to connote such meaning: “Can she get a prayer through?”

[7] This is a play on Jonathan Edwards famous sermon title “Sinners in the hands of an angry God.”

[8] John 14.9

[9] Blaine McCormick & David Davenport, Shepherd Leadership: Wisdom for Leaders from Psalm 23, (San Francisco, CA: Jossey- Bass, 2003), 41.

[10] John 16.33, NIV

[11] John 16.33, NRSV

[12] A play on the expression, “Come hell or highwater.”

[13] Hebrews 12.2

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Seeking to lead words and people to their highest and most authentic expression, I am the principal architect of a race-less world.

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