St Paul’s Cathedral—Psalm 22:1-11
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.” This is the refrain (literally, perhaps, depending on how we do the liturgy) that haunts us today and during this entire week. Even though Psalm 22 was written probably around a thousand years before Christ, the gospel evangelists put it on his lips as he hangs on the cross.
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? And are so far from my cry, and from the words of my distress?” The whole passage is almost unbearably poignant: crying day and night without answer; being laughed at, scorned, and derided, acutely aware that trouble is near, but there is none to help.
Suffering is endemic to the human condition. Nobody escapes it completely, except perhaps those who die suddenly in very early infancy. Whether it’s a scraped knee or a knife in the gut, whether it’s a schoolyard insult or libelous humiliation for all to see on the internet; whether it’s a friend standing you up for a coffee date, or a beloved spouse telling you that “there’s somebody else”; whether it’s a loss of a job or the loss of a child; whether it’s a temporary headache or the searing pain of late-stage cancer—human beings suffer. There are no exceptions. It’s an inescapable fact of life, woven into the human experience.
That said, God’s purpose is to redeem the human condition. God is not content for suffering to have the last word. God is not content for pain or anxiety or disease or depression or deprivation of any sort to have the last word. God is not content for death to have the last word. God is in the redemption business. That’s why we’re here today, doing what we’re doing.
And that is precisely why Jesus handed himself over to be crucified. A few weeks ago, as we celebrated Christmas and Epiphany, we read scriptures and sang hymns and heard sermons that rejoiced in the mystery of the incarnation, the mystery of the Word made flesh, God with us, God assuming human nature, God becoming as we are that we might become as God is. And well we should, for that is the very calling card of the gospel, of the good news: We don’t have to search for God because God has already sought us out and found us, and he has done so by becoming one of us, joining us in this mystery we call the human condition. But we stop short of the whole truth if we fail to acknowledge that the mystery of the human condition includes suffering; the mystery of the human condition includes death. And it makes no sense, and is of no help to us whatsoever, if God is merely born among us. What gives that reality its weight, what gives that reality its significance and meaning, is that God also suffered among us and died among us. Experience that is evaded cannot be redeemed because it has not been embraced. Without the cross, the incarnation is incomplete. On the cross, as he cries out in cosmic loneliness, and as he breathes his last, Jesus shows us the completeness of his incarnation, because on the cross he assumed the fullness of the human condition, which includes suffering and death. The suffering of Jesus, foretold poetically in Psalm 22, demonstrates God’s full embrace of the human condition.
And we do ourselves no favors by glossing over the stark reality of Jesus’ cry from the cross. We’re tempted to do so because we are privileged to know the end of the story. We know about the empty tomb; we know about Easter morning. But at that moment, Jesus wasn’t thinking to himself, “If I can just tough it out here for a little while longer, it’s all going to be OK. I’m not really dying; I’m going through the motions. It’s all a trick, a show. My Father and I are pulling a fast one, but he’s going to make it all better in just a bit. I’ve just got to hang in here.” No, Jesus wasn’t faking it. He really felt forsaken because he really was forsaken. In that dark moment, God the Father turned his back on God the Son, God denied his very self, all out of the deep love that he bears toward your rebellious and wayward soul, and my rebellious and wayward soul.
And at the same time that God is most acutely absent from Jesus, God is most acutely present for us in Jesus’ faithful suffering. Every degree of abandonment that Jesus felt while hanging on the cross is a degree of love that is unleashed toward the healing of human brokenness and the redemption of human suffering. As Isaiah prophesies, “Upon him was the chastisement that made us whole, and with his stripes we are healed.”
In the light of the cross, then, our suffering has meaning. Or, at least it can have meaning if we know what to do with it. In my quarter century of pastoral experience, one of the greatest tragedies I have observed is when suffering is wasted. So many people bear the suffering that comes their way and blame themselves for it. Sure, we can certainly get ourselves into trouble by making stupid decisions and behaving foolishly. But there is plenty of suffering that is completely random and utterly senseless, and not plausibly linked to anything the sufferer has done or left undone. Others suffer, and blame it on God, either in rage—“God, how could you do this to me?!—or with just a rueful shrug of the shoulders: Whatever will be will be. My heart breaks when I run into situations like these. They truly are tragic. At least Jesus, in his abandonment, knew that his suffering meant something, that it was configured to the life of the world.
In contrast to the tragedy of wasted suffering is the glory of suffering that is offered up for redemption. I’m not suggesting that we court suffering. There is no need to invent or concoct suffering; it will find us soon enough. But when suffering is right in front of us, blocking our way, that’s a pretty good sign that it’s the cross—our cross—that Jesus bids us take up daily in order to follow him as his disciple. We have a choice between trying to ignore it or evade it, of grudgingly accepting it, or—and this one is the right answer—of embracing it, taking it up. We take up the cross of suffering, and then we intentionally put that suffering at God’s disposal. We offer our suffering up as a tool that is available to God for God’s ongoing project of redemption, of patiently and methodically reweaving the fabric of a torn and broken universe. In this way, suffering is harnessed and exploited. It becomes effective and fruitful. It bears fruit in the perfection of our holiness, in the process of becoming more and more like Jesus. It bears fruit in making the sheer glory of God clearer and more visible. It bears fruit in the building up of the Church, the Body of Christ, the herald in this world of the coming of the kingdom of God. And it bears fruit in ways that we cannot imagine, that we will never even be aware of this side of eternity. It is this cosmic and grand work of redemption that we celebrate this week, and it is on this cosmic and grand work of redemption that we set our hope. And it would all be impossible without that horrible moment of abandonment as Jesus hangs on the cross. To him be glory for ever and ever. Amen.