The Cry From the Cross and Hell
March 17, 2010
Updated August 26, 2021
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This sermon is offered by the CRCNA as part of our Reading Sermons series.
Scripture: Matthew 27:45-56
Sermon prepared by Rev. Art Verboon, Edmonton, AB
It is said that when Martin Luther sat down in his office to study and prepare a message from the text, "My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?" he had a difficult time with it. Hour after hour he just sat there. Those who were around him at the time would pop their heads into the room occasionally to see how he was doing. But, he was so absorbed in his thoughts that they almost thought he was a corpse. He never moved his hand or his foot. He didn’t eat or drink. He just sat there with his eyes wide open as if he were in a trance trying to understand these words, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" Finally, after many long hours in which he seemed to be in another world, he got up from his chair and someone heard him say to himself, "God forsaking God!? It’s impossible to understand! Who can understand it?" And with that he went on his way. Although none of us can claim to be a Martin Luther by any stretch of the imagination other than perhaps wearing the same dumbfounded look that he wore on his face that day, we do however endorse his conclusion, that this, the saddest cry ever heard on the face of the earth, goes beyond anything we can understand. And that’s why I’m going to explain it to you. No, we’re not going to try and explain it away; but hopefully we will think through some things that might be somewhat helpful.
I. NOT THE FIRST TIME
First of all, we can begin by admitting that this is not the first and only time in which we ought to throw up our hands and say, "Who can understand it?" Just as great a mystery as "God forsaking God" is that moment way back in the Garden of Eden. Remember what Adam and Eve did to God? They had it all! They had paradise, they had God, they had shalom, and they were the apples of God’s eye. And what did they do? They had to have that apple. They had to do the one and only thing God asked them not to do. They just had to do it! "Who can understand it?" In their shame, realizing what they had done and how they had ruined everything between themselves and God, they ran for cover and hid from him. After they did that, what did you hear next from God? You heard him asking, "Where are you?" "Where are you?" Interesting, isn’t it? Think about what has just transpired here. The most unfathomable and unimaginable thing possible has just happened. Adam and Eve believed Satan’s lie and thought that they could be like God, and when they thought that they could be like him and acted upon it, everything that they and God had going between them is ruined for good. And God, knowing what has happened, comes looking for them and calls out, "Where are you?" "Why have you abandoned me?" "Why are you hiding from me?" "My Adam, My Eve, why have you forsaken me?" (Note and point of emphasis -- pause and let it sink in: make it sound like "My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?")
In the Garden we see humans forsaking and abandoning and hiding from God. Having done that, they try to flee from his presence. On the cross, again we see forsaking and abandonment, but this time it is God forsaking God, as Luther described it. Essentially in both instances, we hear that same sad cry. Whether it be from God the Father in the garden, or God the Son on the cross, it’s the same cry of "Where are you?" "Why have you forsaken me?"
There’s an important connection we need to see here between the garden and the cross. For one, there’s a lot of forsaking going on, that’s clear. But there is another thing we need to see as well. There’s a lot of substitution. The concept of substitution lies at the heart of both sin and salvation -- the garden and the cross. The essence of sin back there in the beginning was humans substituting themselves for God, trying to be like God. Yet, the essence of salvation is God substituting himself for humanity. Humanity asserts itself against God and puts itself where only God deserves to be; God sacrifices himself for humanity and puts himself where only humans deserve to be. We try to claim something that belongs to God alone; God accepts penalties that belong to us alone. Without this important concept of substitution, the forsakenness and the cry of Jesus on the cross makes no sense whatsoever.
The concept of substitution is something that goes against our very being as individuals. We don’t like to be told that someone has to stand in our place, because it’s humbling. Nonetheless, the idea of substitution is as old as Eden itself. Here again, getting back to that question God asked, "Where are you?" Adam answers, "I heard you in the garden, and was afraid because I was naked; so I hid (Gen. 3:10)." And then God immediately kills animals for their fur in order to cover Adam and Eve’s nakedness. Those animals shed their blood for the sake of our first parents and in order to picture the coming of a better sacrifice in the distant future. From then on, the phrase, "in the place of" would become the essence of Old Testament theology.
For instance, when God prevented Abraham from sacrificing Isaac, he saw "a ram caught in the bush nearby" and he offered it up for a burnt offering "in the place of" his son. The very word sacrifice implies substitution, and sacrifices were part and parcel with religious life in the Old Testament.
But as we know, the substitutes offered up back then only had limited value. The lambs, the goats, were only symbolic and were unable to permanently shield the people from judgement or take away the sins they had committed. A better substitute than animals had to be found for us humans, if the barrier of sin that existed between God and us was to be removed.
Thankfully, the penalty that was demanded because of our forsaking God is met in Christ bearing it for us.
We need not go into this concept of substitution too much, but that’s the imagery we need to see in our minds as Christ calls out, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" We need to see the imagery of Jesus being our substitute, lest we water down his cry at his greatest moment of need simply to a cry of desperation or loneliness. Far from it, as substitute he became our sin-bearer. As substitute he took upon himself the sin of the entire world. Let me give you a few verses that support this idea:
Galatians 3:13, "Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: "Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree." 2 Corinthians 5:21: "God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God." One last one: 1 Peter 2:24, "He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed."
Simply put, he took our place when the wrath of God comes down. It did not just come upon his physical body there on the cross but upon his soul too during those three dark hours when darkness covered Golgotha, which caused Jesus to cry out, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" This is substitution at it’s perfect best!
Throughout Jesus’ life and ministry and even in Gethsemane he always referred to God as his Father. In the garden of Gethsemane he fell with his face to the ground and pleaded, "My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will." And later that same evening a second time, "My Father if it is not possible for this cup to be taken away unless I drink it, may your will be done." However, now on the cross, "My Father" becomes, "My God."
Jesus is standing in our place. He says, "My God, My God." We should be the one’s being forsaken by God but he stands "in the place of" us.
III. THE NATURE OF THIS FORSAKING
Moving on to another point: When Jesus cries out, "Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani" what exactly is this forsaking? What is the nature of his misery? Maybe we can get at this in a bit of a round about way. We can do so, by asking why it is that martyrs for the faith, martyrs like Stephen, martyrs who are burned at the stake, seem often to die with more joy and praise on their lips, sometimes they are even singing as they die, than Jesus does? Shouldn’t Jesus, the Son of God, be the most joyful martyr of all as he’s dying on the cross?
Well, you could make a case for saying that he should be, if the nature of their deaths were the same. On the physical level, perhaps they are the same, but Christian martyrs, when they die for their faith, are not being forsaken. They are able to sing a song of praise because they are not abandoned. They are not alone! They have Jesus right there with them. Jesus steps up beside them, and because of it, their soul is full of the presence of Jesus’ Holy Spirit. The strength and presence of Jesus is with them.
However, Jesus in his death does it alone. In order for the penalty of sin to be carried, the sin of the entire world had to be on our substitute, Jesus Christ. The perfect justice and wrath of God needed to be paid for by Jesus, and he had to do it alone. God the Father as judge could not hold out his hand and offer him help. He had to do it alone. The perfect communion and fellowship between Father and Son somehow, as impossible as it is to explain, needed to be broken. Jesus needed to be forsaken, abandoned, left to become sin by himself. Hence, we hear Jesus cry out, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" "Where are you?" This is misery that goes beyond our understanding. "Who can understand it?" as Luther said. Yes, we can understand Jesus’ misery when he suffers at the hands of other humans, because we do too. We can relate. We can even understand Jesus’ misery when he suffers at the hands of Satan, because we do too. But we cannot understand the misery of having to suffer at the hands of God’s ultimate wrath. This is to feel the misery of hell itself!
To hear the cry, "Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani" is to hear not simply a cry from the cross, but it is to hear a cry from hell. This is Jesus’ moment in hell. When we confess in our Apostle’s Creed that Jesus "descended into hell and on the third day rose again," that statement leads to a bit of confusion. Within our tradition we do not believe that Jesus entered hell literally and was subject to Satan for three days. Jesus never has been, nor ever will be subject to Satan! To say this is tantamount to giving Satan the victory. No, when Jesus died, he went immediately that same day to be with his Father in paradise and greeted the criminal who was on the cross next to him, just as he promised him. Instead, we need to understand that in those hours of darkness before his death, those hours in which his Father forsook him and separated himself from him, that is to experience hell.
As the wrath of God came down upon him, this is the depth of the misery that he had to endure: separation from God. Hell is separation from God in all its forms. It is the ultimate forsakenness.
IV. TO EXPERIENCE HELL
You may be thinking to yourself this doesn’t quite sound right. Being separated from his presence, being forsaken by God isn’t the same as hell itself. Or if it is, then maybe hell isn’t that bad after all because there are many people, especially atheists, who in fact don’t seek out the presence of God in their lives, and they’re not exactly experiencing all kinds of torment. Just go and ask some person who lives life without prayer or concern for God whether their separation from God is painful. They’ll probably say that it isn’t.
If this is true, isn’t what we just said a serious objection not simply to our concept of hell, but even to the nature of Christ’s misery on the cross? It is, and if it is true, then we’ve got some serious challenges here on our hands. But we need to think this through a little further, because it will help us understand hell’s deepest mystery, as well as Christ’s cry of misery all the more. Yes, there is some truth to this objection because it is true that we can actually overlook God our entire lives without ever becoming clear about what we are losing when we overlook him. This is the case for all happy-go-lucky unbelievers -- their ignorance is bliss.
It needs however to be said that at present in this world, God’s presence is not fully enjoyed the way it was in the garden, nor as it will be on the new earth. We only get the first fruits, a simple taste of better things to come. Furthermore, as Scripture says, God pours out rain and blessings on believers and unbelievers alike in this world. There is such a thing as common grace for all people. So the level or the divide between unbelievers and believers as far as joy goes, isn’t as great as it could be.
However, and this is the important point, there will be a day, there will be a moment in time when every single human being who has ever lived will and must recognize God as God, as Lord of lords and King of kings. Whether that happens at the moment of our death or is reserved for judgement day, that’s hard to explain; however, all people must see and must believe the truth about God as God. He will show his perfect presence to them.
But here’s the clincher. Is not hell simply the situation in which we must recognize God as God without anymore being able to come to him? I repeat: Is not hell simply the situation in which we must recognize God as God without anymore being able to come to him? As long as I don’t know that from which I have been cut off, namely God, the separation really causes me no pain and misery. What or whom I don’t really know doesn’t really hurt me. But if there is a time when EVERY KNEE WILL BOW DOWN before this incredible and indescribably great God, while at the same time, having been told, "Away from me, I have never known you," well -- that hurts! That is to suffer the torment and forsakenness of hell.
Jesus knew, as no other human being could, what separation from God would mean. He knew God’s love, he knew God’s fellowship, and the thought of being away from it even for a short time forced him to cry out, "My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?" "Where are you?" It was hell on earth....But Jesus knew one other thing. It was either hell for him, or it was hell for us. As Martin Luther said, "Who can understand it?" And it’s true. Who would want to be our substitute? Who can understand such love? Praise to the name of Jesus, Amen
Prayer: Lord God Almighty, just as we cannot begin to understand the depth of the misery that Christ bore in our place on the cross, we cannot begin to understand the depth of the love "for us" that it took for your son to hang on the cross and for you to send him there. Our prayer is that you will stir your Spirit within us so that we are always kept near the cross. We pray this in Jesus name, Amen.
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Scripture Matthew 27:45-56
Text: Matthew 27:46
Sermon "THE CRY FROM THE CROSS AND HELL"
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