You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the parents on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments. — Exodus 20:5-6
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? — Matthew 27:13
What else is there to say after that? “My God! My God…” This text appears little more than a poor picture of parenting. Why is God absent? Why has God forsaken his only son? Why? With the commandment still echoing in our minds, we wonder how this jealous God deserts a faithful son. You and I expect a little more from our God here; we would expect more from our own parents.
Believe me, I am an expert in high expectations for parents. This may be hard for some of you to believe, but I was a “high maintenance” child. As a small child, I was terribly afraid of being left behind or forgotten. I had no reason for such a fear, never left behind at a restaurant or forgotten at a family function. Nevertheless, when I came out of my elementary school each day, if I did not see my mom and our minivan at the front of the carpool line, I would lose it. It would be a meltdown of kindergarten-size proportions. So without fail, my mom would be there at the front each day.
One day, however, she was running late. She rushed out of the house, opened the garage door, jumped in our Pontiac Transport, and raced down the drive way until … BAM! She jumped out of the car to find that she had hit … the mail truck. No one was hurt, but there was some damage to the cars. The mailman came around and said, “I’m sorry ma’am, but I need to call my supervisor out here.” Understanding, my mom said, “Sure thing, but I must go pick up my son from school.” The mailman replied, “I’m sorry but you cannot leave.” My mom protested, “No really, I have to go. I will be right back.” The mailman insisted, “Miss, you are involved in an accident with federal property, and you cannot leave. It is a felony.” And then in a way only mothers can, she said, “LOOK. My son is expecting me to pick him up. I AM going to pick him up, bring him home, then meet with your supervisor. You know where I live, and when I get back you can take me to jail.” Needless to say, she left, picked me up, and never went to jail.
That is more the response we expect from God in Matthew 27. We expect God to be there, no matter what. “My God,” we say, “where are you? What kind of God are you? What kind of parent are you?”
In truth, we ask this question more than we realize. There is trouble in this big world, and we expect a little more from God. The Koreas are fighting, Haiti is struggling, the economy is shrinking, divorce is rising, loved ones are dying, and we are still praying. We wonder where the “iniquity of the parents” really came from. And we wonder if God really blesses any generation, much less a thousand. Bad comes to good people, and we expect just a little bit more from our God.
In fact, because we expect God to will and work in this world, we are here. We feel called to minister, learn, teach, and preach. For if God did not work, our ministries would be worthless. Our careers and vocations are testaments to our expectations of God. And yet, some dark secrets and deep doubts linger inside us.
We have given up so much to pursue our calling, and we wonder if it is worth it. Can we pay back the loans? Can we find a job? Can we keep our family together or find time to finally start one? Can we make up the soccer games we missed, the date nights we skipped, the friendships we forgot? We have shown the steadfast love that appeases that jealous God of ours, and we expect a little bit from God. Not unlike Jesus, we sit here and at times feel forsaken by so much. Could we handle it if our God walked away too?
That is perhaps the most disturbing part of Matthew 27. Here at Jesus’ final hours, at the end of his short life, he has nothing to lose … except God. And in his final, frightful minutes, Jesus found himself alone and forsaken. The beatings now over, his body now broken, his life now shamed, he hangs from a cross.
In the ancient world, honor and shame were ways of defining self-worth. Far more important than our concept of popularity today, someone’s honor defined the role and status of him and his family. The beatings and mockery of the soldiers that day were meant not only for blood and bruise but shame as well. In a few moments, public beatings erased a lifetime of honor. Jesus’ clothes were then stolen, his body broken. His disciples desert him, thieves mock him, and he is forced to watch the agony of a few faithful women unfold before him. And then comes the greatest loss of all: “My God … My God.”
When we hear these words of anguish, we begin to feel angry. The text does not mention sin, atonement, or salvation. No theological treatise here explains God’s absence. Like the silence surrounding Jesus’ sorrow, God’s absence is painfully obvious.
Remember, this is the same Jesus who in Matthew 3 was told, “You are my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” This is the same Jesus who in Matthew 17 stood beside Moses and Elijah. This is the same Jesus who in Matthew 26, only one chapter prior, said, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want.” Jesus, the beloved, holy, obedient son is left forsaken on a tree. Where is his blessing to the thousandth generation? I am not so sure Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5 get it right. Sometimes evil is not punished and the faithful are not blessed. Sometimes God is jealous, and sometimes God is absent.
Jesus’ cry is one of loneliness and sorrow. A cry perhaps better phrased, “My God, my God, where the hell are you?” We expect God to be there and hit whatever mail trucks stand in the way.
That felony-offending mother of mine died eight weeks ago. She turned just 51 in August. She battled cancer for six years, underwent colon surgery, brain surgery, twenty-seven rounds of chemotherapy, experimental treatments, and radiation. Her last weeks were hell as a re-grown brain tumor made her forgetful, fearful, and confused. It was then I found myself asking, “My God, my God, where the hell are you?” But it was there, in the hell of it, I found hope.
Jesus lived in a culture based on the spoken, not written, word. And his cry to God comes from Psalm 22: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?” In the ancient world, quoting a line or phrase was a way to call to mind the larger work, not just the words spoken. You see, Psalm 22 begins with loneliness and pain, but it does not end there. The Psalm continues, “To you they cried and were saved; in you they trusted and were not put to shame. For God did not despise or abhor the affliction of the afflicted; he did not hide his face from me, but heard when I cried to him” (Psalm 22:5, 24). Like Psalm 22, so many of our stories begin with loneliness and pain, but they do not end there. And that is good news!
In a way we cannot quite understand, Christ on the cross is both forgotten and remembered, despised and beloved, lonely and kept company. The shame of his public beating, the loss of all his possessions, and the pain of his body are all real. Psalm 22 does not ignore that. You and I should not ignore that.
In the midst of our pain, we search for God with full expectations only to find God in the most unexpected of places — there in the hell of it with us. My mother’s last weeks were hell, but they were not the whole story. Like the Psalm says, we cried out and were saved, we trusted and were not put to shame; God was with us and never despised our affliction, never hid his face from us but heard our cries.
In a way we cannot quite understand, my mom was terrified to go but ready to go. She did not fear death but feared dying. And as she slipped those surly bonds of Earth, she was both alone and in great company. And that is the greatest of news.
In her last weeks, she became less and less herself. We began to say goodbye, make our final funeral plans, and walk ever so slowly towards death. One of the last conversations I had with her took place beside her recliner, a chair she did not leave the last ten days of her life. She pulled me over, held my hand, and said, “Scott, I’m ready to go. I am ready to see Jesus.” She said, “At the end of every online update I posted, I ended with the words, ‘In His Hands,’ and now I really will be ‘In His Hands.’ “ And when she passed away, she let go of this life only to be grasped by Hands that never really left her.
Perhaps Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5 do get it right. Remaining faithful to that jealous God involves being open to the possibility of providence. Steadfast love does not mean the absence of pain but rather God’s company through a lifetime of it.
Being faithful means being true to our pain and true to our hope. Let me encourage you to live into this dual reality. When you are forsaken or forgotten, when you doubt the hands of Providence, cry out to God. Do not ignore it, and do not imagine it away. Christ’s pain was real, and so is ours. But in the midst of that cry, remember that you are heard. Remember, we can, like Christ, still cry, “MY God, MY God.”
Take heart. We serve a Lord who knows pain, shame, loneliness, and death. But that same Lord knows life, healing, and resurrection. If you are alone, you are also in great company. If you are forgotten, you are also remembered. If you are despised, you are also loved. Go this day with confidence that you can be heard, even in the hell of it, by a God who will be with us even to the end of the age.
Scott Claybrook is Minister to Young Adults, Outreach, and Communication at First Baptist Church in Knoxville, TN. This sermon was originally presented at the 2011 National Festival of Young Preachers, an event of the Academy of Preachers. It was published in the book Waking to the Holy. You can follow Scott on Twitter @swclaybrook.