“The Full Literal Gospel: Forsaken”
Mark 15:34 and Matthew 27:46
Rev. Michael J. Zehnder
(Good Friday) April 15, 2022 – Ascension Lutheran Church, Littleton, CO
At Christmas time, people greet each other with Merry Christmas. On January 1 people say Happy New Year! Or to me, they might even say Happy Birthday!
At Easter, people say Happy Easter, and on Thanksgiving, Happy Thanksgiving.
But on a solemn day like today, Good Friday, also called Black Friday in some parts of the world, no one greets anyone with “Happy Good Friday.” Saying Happy Good Friday might be appropriate because of the outcome, but considering what it took to get there might sound disrespectful. Still, we choose to call it GOOD Friday because of its end result: the Son of God, Jesus Christ paid for the sins of the whole world of every time and place. He accomplished for us peace and reconciliation with God the Father. Believers receive everlasting life and live with God forever in happiness.
But for it to become “Good Friday” was an awful journey. Jesus Christ was arrested after betrayal by his own close disciple, Judas Iscariot and was tried for blasphemy. The mob, led by the high priest condemned Jesus, shouting “crucify him” and he was sentenced to death. He was made to carry his own cross to the site of his execution, called the place of the skull. On the way he was whipped, mocked, beaten, spit on and a crown of thorns put on his head. At Golgotha (the place of the skull) he had nails hammered through his hands and feet and suffered on the cross for six long hours. I’ve read analysis by medical professionals who say the angle of his hanging would be miserable in terms of being able to breath and was more like a slow asphyxiation. The end result of Good Friday – the forgiveness of sins – is good indeed but the sacrifice Jesus had to make to get there is so monstrous that to say Happy Good Friday might sound callous.
Our church itself today reflects the somberness of Christ’s sacrifice. All decorations have been removed. The cross (and other items) are draped in black. There is nothing on top of the altar, everything has been removed so that it looks like the altar of sacrifice and the tomb it represents. The music and hymns are much more austere: O Sacred Head Now Wounded, Stricken, Smitten and Afflicted, O Darkest Woe. It’s a Black Friday to be sure, made Good by what Jesus accomplished and His declaration that “It is finished” – nothing left to do to win us back to God.
It would be easy to focus on the physical agonies of Jesus, some of which I just described, but that is not the worst of what Jesus suffered by far. The worst thing is what one of my seminary professors called: THE FULL LITERAL GOSPEL. You are probably aware that Jesus spoke seven times from the cross and sometimes sermons or services on Good Friday are organized around the seven last words of Christ. The depth of Jesus suffering is heard in his fourth word from the cross and it’s the only word reported by Matthew in Jesus’ original tongue: Aramaic. “Eli Eli, lama sabachthani?” (My God, my God why have you forsaken me?) Matt 27:46; Mark 15:34. The mystery of the cross is not just that God would take on flesh and punishment for sin. The greatest mystery of the cross is a theological one: abandonment inside the Trinity. What?
These words enter us into a mystery that cannot be fully explained. How can the Father and the Son be separated? How can the Son be forsaken, abandoned? After all, Jesus prayed to the Father in John 17, “You are in me and I am in you,” so how can he say, “You have forsaken me!”?
Hell has many descriptions in the Bible: it is a place where the worm does not die and the fire is not quenched. But the real hell of hell is that it is a place where God is not. On this earth and in this universe, God is everywhere and involved in everything, “In Him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). Even in the hell of war, God is present… answering prayer… sending angels to minister… healing and comforting. But in hell, God is not present, God cannot be called upon. In hell is where people are forsaken, abandoned, cursed without the presence of God. By definition, hell is the only place where God is NOT. About 40-50 years ago I had a dream I was in hell and this point was brought home to me. In my nightmare, I cried out to God for help and then I realized He wasn’t there. He couldn’t hear me, He couldn’t help me and I screamed and cried in abandonment. Fortunately, it was just a dream but I’ve never forgotten the point of it because it matched up with scripture. The hell of abandonment is what Jesus experienced on the cross as he cried out “Lama Sabachthani” – why have you forsaken me? Where are you? Jesus once said, “If you’ve seen me you’ve seen the Father” (John 14:9) but on the cross, God the Father told his angels to fold up their wings and grant no aid to the Son who had previously said he could call on a legion of angels for help if He wanted. But now, the Father turned his back and His presence away from the Son and He had to experience the curse of Hell that we deserved for sins, that’s the full, literal Gospel.
The unity of the Holy Trinity was undergoing the unthinkable. Trinity is unity of three persons, coequal, co-God. In the Nicene Creed was say Jesus was begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father by whom all things were made…
But in this moment something was amiss in the Trinity. How this can be theologians have no adequate words to explain. We only have the witness of Jesus’ words that God the Father forsook God the Son. It shows just how terrible the price of sin, Jesus forsaken, that you and I would never be forsaken by God. Here, the love of God for sinners is displayed at its highest.
Grace shines through in these horrifying words of Jesus. Because HE was forsaken by the Father, you and I will never have to hear these words recorded in scripture, “Depart from me, you who are cursed….” (Matt. 25:41). Sometimes in your sinfulness, you may feel as if God has deserted you but that’s never true. The Father deserted the Son in order that you and I might never experience the Father’s desertion and curse.
By contrast, we have God’s promise: “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you” (Heb. 13:5). For our sake and in our stead, Jesus WAS forsaken – separated from the Father. That’s the full literal Gospel: he took our death and he took the hell we deserved. The wages of sin is death – eternal death — but these terrible wages were paid for by Jesus.
It is not something the mind is fully prepared to comprehend. But we can understand this: Jesus took the CURSE of hell away from us. Scripture says, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law by becoming a curse for us” (Gal 3:13) so that you will never hear this: “Depart from me you who are cursed…” He took our punishment and He took our curse away from us and onto Himself. Now through faith, believers in Jesus Christ as the Son of God and our Savior look forward to hearing different words, recorded by Jesus in Mathew 25, “Come to me you who are blessed and take the inheritance prepared for you by my father in heaven.” Luther called this the GREAT EXCHANGE. Jesus took our sins, our wretchedness, our curse and exchanged them for His perfection, His righteousness, His perfect love. And that makes for a Happy Good Friday, indeed!