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The Cry of Mystery

The Father's love is with us in our darkest hours, just as it was with Jesus in his darkest hour.

Text: Matthew 27:39–49
Topic: The meaning of the fourth word of Jesus from the cross, "My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me?"


The cathedral in Dijon, France, is not a particularly impressive one. I remember it because there is a statue of an angel at the foot of the pulpit. In one hand the angel has a pen, in the other hand a tablet, and the face of the winsome being is directed toward the pulpit. It is obvious that the angel is writing down what he hears preached from that place.

I begin today by saying that I hope no angel is taking notes, because I want to think with you on our Lord's fourth word from the cross: "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?"

This is an incredibly deep and profound word. When I contemplate it, the words of the Samaritan woman come immediately to my mind, "Sir, thou hast nothing to draw with, and the well is deep." This, you see, is the cry of mystery.

When I was a senior in seminary, I listed eight texts of Scripture on which I pledged myself not to preach until I had been in the ministry for at least 20 years. I've now been in the ministry for 26 years, and this is the first time that I approach this, one of those eight texts. I ask you to search it with me now.

But even as we go to the searching, I say again, the well is deep, and I have nothing with which to draw.

As we approach the Word, we have to remind ourselves of the concentric nature of what Jesus said from the cross. His first word, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do," was as wide as all mankind. Jesus drew a circle that included everyone who has ever lived. His prayer was that God would withhold judgment until all of the children of men had repented and come to him. The circle could be no wider than that.

The second word from the cross, "This day thou shalt be with me in paradise," draws a smaller circle. It includes all those who have repented, come to Christ, and been forgiven by God, and also those who will know the joys of heaven. It is still a wide circle, but it is smaller than the first one.

The third word from the cross, "Woman, behold thy son. Son, behold thy mother," draws an even smaller circle, for it refers not only to those who are saved, but more specifically to those who have taken upon themselves the responsibilities of authentic and disciplined discipleship. This is the company of the active church, those who are called to respond to the call of ministering to one another.

But now with this fourth word from the cross, there are no more circles, for in this word and the words that follow, Jesus is speaking only of himself and of his relationship to his Father.

Now these words have great implication for us and we can learn from them. Yet we must understand as we look at them that they are conversations within the Trinity. They are the intimate words of the divine to the divine.

There's another thing that we must remind ourselves of before we approach this text—Jesus was crucified at the third hour, nine in the morning. Now his first three words from the cross were uttered within the first hour of his crucifixion, but after that Jesus went into a deep silence; for five hours he did not speak. The Scriptures say very specifically that it was not until the ninth hour, three o'clock in the afternoon, that Jesus uttered the words that are before us this morning, after five hours of silence.

The fourth word from the cross was motivated by the physical and mental agony of Christ.

Now, there is no question that whatever was going on in the mind of Jesus in those five hours impacted very heavily on what he said at the end of them. Silence can be very powerful in its meaning. All of our words are born out of silence. All of our words break silence. All of our words are in the end swallowed up by silence. Silence can be powerfully eloquent.

What we have to do in searching out this word of Jesus is to go into the five hours of silence. What was happening then? Well, unquestionably Jesus devoted some of his thoughts to the physical pain he was undergoing. I'm not going to recount the nature of that pain again, but I would say to you that pain has a way of capturing one's mind, of capturing one's attention, and of separating one from others.

I remember some years ago when I had heart surgery. Following that, it's very important to keep the lungs clear. There are three ways in which they do that: first, they have you breathe moist salt air; second, they have nurses who beat a kind of rhythm on your back, which loosens the fluids within you; and third, they have you cough.

Now breathing that moist salt air is like standing on the boardwalk at Ocean City; it's very pleasant. And having a lovely nurse pound on your back very gently, rhythmically—that's very pleasant. But the coughing is another question.

When your sternum has been split from the top to the bottom, when your rib cage has been pulled open, and when pain with fire-shod feet is walking along every nerve of your thorax, you don't want to move your chest. But they want you to cough. So the nurse comes in and says, "Now it's time for us to do our coughing." You know it's not "our" coughing; it's your coughing. It hurts, and you feel very cut off because no one can take away the pain.

Now I am not saying my pain was like the pain Jesus knew in the crucifixion. But I am saying if you have ever experienced real pain, it has a way of capturing you, isolating you, and separating you. There is a profound loneliness in physical pain.

But Jesus, in these hours of silence, also knew mental pain. No one loved God as much as Jesus did. Therefore, what was being done against God in that place was an affront to God and an affront to Jesus. No one was as jealous for God as Jesus was. And what was being done in that place was an assault upon the Father he loved.

I think it's a very interesting thing that the sign which was put over Jesus' head, THIS IS JESUS, THE KING OF THE JEWS, was written in three languages: Latin, Hebrew, and Greek.

Latin was the language of law. The Romans had achieved a level of jurisprudence that had not been equaled anywhere in history until that time. Latin speaks to us of that law. It was the best law the mind of man had mastered, being used to unjustly crucify the Christ.

Hebrew was the language of religion. The Jewish religion had scaled heights that no other religion had ascended. The Old Testament excels beyond every other book on faith that has ever been written except the New Testament. Here we have in the announcement of Jesus' deity and his person in Hebrew, the language of religion, the noblest expression of faith that the world had produced. Here we have it announced, and the very Son of the God being praised is being crucified.

Greek was the language of culture, truth, and beauty. The finest philosophers, sculptors, and playwrights were all Greek. Greek was the quintessence of man's accomplishments in civilization. And here we have the highest level of civilization known until that day crucifying the innocent. What we confront on Calvary is the best that man can do in law, in things of faith, and in the things of culture—the best that man can do—twisted, ugly, broken, revolting against God. It must have offended Jesus to have seen the shadow of sin, the extent of it—the Cross—even the noblest things that the mind of man had been able to produce. That would have weighed heavily on him in these five hours.

The fourth word is a commentary on the magnitude of sin.

There's something else. Jesus saw in this time the utter awfulness of sin. On Calvary we see evil at its most hideous; the Scriptures say that even the sun hid its face. In other words, we see on Calvary not only the extent of human sin going across all of human history, but we see the intent of it.

We talk very easily and glibly about sin. We say things like, "I do not steal," and yet we overwork those who labor for us. We say we do not lie, and then we do not hesitate to gossip. And though we are very kind to our friends, we're absolute dictators in our homes. We are in the church every time the doors are open, and yet we behave like a demon with some of our associates. We say we do not take the Lord's name in vain, and yet we do not hesitate to throw logjams in the presence of the process of the kingdom.

Now these little things that we do, that we in our casualness forget about or excuse—these little things are all part of a great web of revolution and insult to God. My friends, the reason there is no little sin is because there is no little God to sin against. Whenever we do that which is contrary to his will, which is destructive to him or to our relationships with others in no matter how small a way, we are at war with him, shaking a rebel fist in his face and saying, "I will be my god."

I've not seen this myself, but in the Topkapi Museum in Istanbul, they have a very precious goblet. In the center of the inside of that goblet is carved, in gold, a serpent. It has ruby eyes and diamond fangs; its mouth is open and ready to strike. When the goblet is filled with wine, the ruby-red liquid covers the snake. You cannot see it, but as you drink the wine, suddenly the presence of the serpent with all of its menacing appearance is revealed.

Now Jesus, when he came to live life with us, drank the cup of life to the full. But here on Calvary he is at the depths of that cup. And suddenly the serpent, which had been lingering in all of it, through all of it, was revealed in all of its menacing nature. The intensity of evil—and Jesus saw it. We have to step from the shelf of understanding and let ourselves go into the dizzying depths of what is beyond us.

I think he also, on Calvary, experienced the consequences of sin. Now I am not saying that Jesus sinned, but I am saying that the stink of sin so engulfed him on the cross, so overwhelmed him, that he felt it as he'd never felt it before. He was born in Bethlehem and lived life with us. The Scriptures say he was tempted at all points in life just as we are, yet without sin. Being without sin, Jesus had never felt the consequences of sin. But here on Calvary with the weight of the whole world's sin descended upon him, the taste of its bitter fruit must have been in his mouth.

Victor Hugo has a novel, The Toilers of the Sea. There's an evil character in it named Claubert, who wishes to rob a whole shipload of people. So he steers the ship onto a sandbar, and, attempting to appear to be very noble, he assembles all the people on the ship, puts them in a lifeboat, and sends them off to an island, where he says they will be saved. He, pretending to be a hero, remains behind.

As soon as they're out of sight, he goes through all of their staterooms and the safes on the ship, gathers all the money together, puts it on his own person, and then goes to the other side of the ship. His plan is to leap off and swim a very short distance to a nearby island, where he knows ships pass regularly. He will be rescued, while they are lost, and he will have all of the money. So loaded with the cash, he leaps from the side of the ship, cuts through the surface of the water, goes down, touches the bottom, and then pushes off from the bottom, surging for the surface.

Just as he pushes off, something grabs him. It's a great octopus, a great devilfish. He feels the icy, adhesive tentacles of this creature of the deep wrap around him. They clutch at him, and he tries to tear away this cold thing that has hold of him. But even as he tears it away from one point, another tentacle grabs him at another point, until they are wrapped about his neck, his waist, and his legs, and they pull him down to death.

That's the way sin is. We struggle with it as it grips us at one place, and we find it grips us at another place. No matter how hard we try to escape, it grabs us at a place we least expect. We cannot escape from it. We are sinners.

Jesus was not a sinner. Yet here on Calvary I submit to you that he felt sin's grip. It wrapped around him and crushed out of him his very life.

The fourth word is an echo of Psalm 22.

I don't know any of this, of course. I don't know that this is what he was thinking about during those five hours. That's the reason I want no angel to take notes. I only know this: those five hours were the crucifixion within the Crucifixion. That's when he went to the deepest, darkest place. It was out of that that there suddenly erupted from his lips, from his very soul, the words, "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?"

What do the words mean? Well, they are not an affirmation of despair. They are, interestingly enough, an affirmation of great hope and victory. You see, when Jesus uttered those words, he was quoting the opening words of the Psalm 22. Now that psalm was written hundreds of years before Calvary, yet it's an exact description of what transpired there. It's the most precise prophecy in all of the Old Testament. The devout Jew learned the Psalm 22 for times of great distress and darkness. When he was in so deep he couldn't get out, that was the psalm that he prayed.

Jesus, during those five hours, must have had that psalm before him again and again. Look at the words that are in it. It says things like, "My enemies laugh, and they say 'he trusted the Lord to deliver him, let him deliver him.' " That's exactly what the Jews were saying to Jesus there on Golgotha. The psalm says, "They have pierced my hands and my feet." That's just what the soldiers did to him on Golgotha. The psalm says, "They have parted my garments and they have cast lots for my vesture." That's exactly what they did for his clothes on Calvary. The psalm says, "My tongue cleaves to my jaws." That's exactly what was on the mind of Jesus a moment later, as he says, "I thirst."

The psalm parallels what was happening to him, and it concludes with a note of triumphant affirmation: "I will declare thy name, O Lord, for thou hast not despised me and thou hast not hidden thy face from me." In other words, the message of the psalm is that no matter how deep a person is in suffering. God will not forsake that person.

Jesus, descending into the depths and darkness of those five hours, feeling separated, knows that he isn't separated. As he comes out of it, he affirms, and the Scriptures say it was with a great cry, "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" By saying that single line, he reminded every Jew who was there of the whole psalm.

It would be as if I were to say to you, "Four score and seven years ago." As soon as I say those phrases, you know what comes next. Every breath cost him on Calvary. He couldn't say the psalm, but he could say the words with which it begins, and this was his testimony. Even in the darkness God was there.

The fourth word expresses assurance, not despair.

In the National Gallery of Art in London there's a picture of the Crucifixion that is so dark that when you first look at it, you can't see anything. But if you stand and ponder it, and if you do not permit your gaze to falter, eventually you will see in the darkness a very dim figure of the crucified Christ. If you look longer and do not allow your attention to be diverted, you then begin to discern behind the figure of Christ the presence of God the Father, whose hands are holding up his Son, and on his face is a look of unimaginable grief.

There, in those five hours, no matter what the depths to which he went, Jesus knew his Father was with him. The Trinity—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—suffering together. That's a mystery. I cannot explain it. But it is true.

It's like that young mother who was asked by the doctor, "Which one of your three children do you love the most?"

She said, "I love them all the same."

He said, "I'm serious. Which one do you love the most?"

She said, "I love them all the same."

He said, "It is impossible to feel exactly the same way about three different individuals. Which one do you love the most?"

"All right," she said, "I don't love them all the same. When one is sick, I love that one the most. When one is confused, I love that one the most. When one is in pain or lost, I love that one the most. And when one of them is bad—I don't mean naughty, but really bad—I love that one the most. But at all other times, I love them all the same."

And that's the message of the fourth word from the Cross. We can't explain what happened in those five hours—how God in Christ was there in the darkness, with the tentacles—but we can say that even there God supported his suffering Son.

The word for all those who believe is that even in the worst hurt, he is with us, too. Each Sunday when we gather here, the only thing that separates me from you is this robe and a little distance. In every other way, we are the same. That's how I know that some of you hurt. You cover it up with smiles, but some of you hurt a lot. You are knowing a great storm, the waves are high, and the decks of your spirits are awash.

I will not lie to you; I can offer you no formula that will make it all go away. But I can say this to you: Once on a sunny hillside by Galilee, Jesus taught his disciples to pray saying, "Our Father, which art in heaven … " and that was very good.

But, once on a dark hill called Calvary, Jesus taught us that we can pray, "Our Father, which art in hell … " and that's better, for it's in the darkness that we need most to know of his love.

© 1989 Bruce W. Thielemann

Bruce Thielemann is the former pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh, PA.

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Sermon Outline:


I. The Fourth Word was motivated by the physical and mental agony of Christ

II. The Fourth Word is a commentary on the magnitude of sin

III. The Fourth Word is an echo of Psalm 22

IV. The Fourth Word expresses assurance, not despair