If you can hear this question tonight, you are not alone. Pain comes with questions. Paul Duke says “A person with a wound is a person with a question…and they’re usually the hardest questions ever asked because they almost never get an answer.
Why me? Why now? Why this?
From his cross, in blinding pain Jesus sanctified our questions when he cried out: My God! Why?!?
And Duke says: “And the heavens were as silent as a stone.” (The Power of a Wound, sermon by Paul Duke, First Baptist, Greenville, SC)
We all have questions. Several weeks ago, I asked the youth to help me with tonight’s service by thinking of difficult questions—questions that might not even have an answer—but that they wanted to ask God if they had the chance (and of course, we always have that chance…). I was surprised and challenged by their depth, pondering issues and existential questions that are unusual for their age. And although one of those “troubling questions without an answer” was: “Why do people like Donald Drumpf?” Others revealed healthy and inquisitive faith.
Do you have questions for God? Listen to some of theirs: Why does God still love us even when we haven’t shown his love to others? Why do you allow such evil to take place in this world? Why don’t some people love you? Why do young people get taken too soon? Why have you made life so easy for me…compared to the lives of others? Why are we here, at this time, in this place? Why are all people not accepted? Why does God forgive sin? Why did you die for us?
Jesus’ cries from the cross are the most uncomfortable words ever spoken…and they are also the most comforting words ever spoken. Because even though the question is never answered, this scene answers a question we will ask our whole lives: “Does God understand my suffering?” Knowing that even Jesus felt abandoned means that even in my abandonment, I am never alone.
One way in which we are probably not alone is that we are all uneasy with this unanswered question. If you are like I am, I come to church to get help with these hard questions. All right, Preacher! Give me the answer!
As we deal with Jesus’ question from the cross tonight, if you’re expecting an answer, you will go home disappointed because I’m not going to answer a question that even God didn’t answer! If we leave tonight uneasy about Jesus’ cry and uncertain about God’s unresponsiveness, maybe the shadow of this cross will follow us home…and maybe we will wrestle with its meaning more deeply tomorrow.
From the 6th hour until the 9th hour, darkness came over all the land. About the 9th hour Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eli, Eli! Lama sabachthani?” “My God, my God! Why have you abandoned me?”
You may already know what this gut-wrenching cry feels like, but if we live long enough, we will all experience first hand this cry of anguish. Maybe it comes unexpectedly, causing your knees to buckle when a shaky voice on the other end of the phone says: “You’d better sit down…” Or maybe it’s dressed in blue-green emergency room scrubs and saying hazy words that sound like “I’m sorry, but there was nothing else we could do…” Or maybe it comes after you’ve watched helplessly as a loving relationship you put so much into crumbled all around you, finalized by “I’m leaving!” and an angry door slam…
The cry is “Why, God?!?” And the answer?….(shrug)
In 1980, the Miami Herald told the heartbreaking story of Judith Bucknell. On a sweltering evening in June of that year, Judy was murdered. Max Lucado tells Judy’s story: (No Wonder They Call Him The Savior: Chronicles of the Cross, Lucado, 1986, pp. 43-48):
Judy kept a diary. Had she not, her memory would’ve been buried with her body. But the diary exists, and it is a painful footnote to a lonely life. The Miami Herald said:
“In her diaries, Judy created a character and a voice. The character is herself, wistful, struggling, weary; the voice is yearning. Judith Bucknell has failed to connect; age 38, many lovers, much love offered…none returned.”
Judy struggled with the same things we all struggle with: “getting old, getting fat, getting married, getting pregnant, and getting by…Judy was the paragon of a confused human being…Successful as a secretary, but a loser at love, her diary was full of entries like this:
“Where are the men with the flowers and champagne and music? Where are the men who call and ask for a genuine, actual date? Where are the men who would like to share more than my bed, my booze, my food? I would like to have in my life—once before I pass through my life—the kind of intimate relationship that is part of a loving relationship.”
But she never did.
Judy wasn’t a prostitute. She wasn’t on drugs or on welfare. She never went to jail. She wasn’t a social outcast. She was respectable. She jogged. She hosted parties. She wore designer clothes and had an apartment that overlooked the bay. And she was very lonely.
“I see people together and I’m so jealous I want to throw up! What about me! What about me!”
Surrounded by people, she was on an island. She had plenty of acquaintances, but few friends. She had many lovers…but little love.
“Who is going to love Judy Bucknell?” her diary continues. “I feel so old. Unloved. Unwanted. Used up. Abandoned. I want to cry and sleep forever.”
A clear message came from her aching words. Though her body died on June 9th from knife wounds, her heart had died long before…from loneliness.
“I’m alone,” she wrote, “and I want to share something with somebody.”
Loneliness. It’s a cry. A moan. A wail. It’s a gasp that comes from the deepest recesses of our souls. Can you hear it? The abandoned child? The abandoned spouse. The abandoned parent. The empty mailbox. The long days…the longer nights…
Cries of loneliness. Listen again. Tune out the traffic and turn down the TV. The cry is there. Our cities are full of Judy Bucknells. (We might just have a few in our churches too.) Can you hear their cries? In the nursing homes…among the sighs and the shuffling feet…or listen for it in the halls of our high schools where peer pressure weeds out the “have-nots” from the “haves.” (Lucado, pp. 43-45)
Under bridges and in tent cities you can see the cry of loneliness etched with magic marker into cardboard signs. And if you really listen, you might just hear it in some of the nicest neighborhoods in town, where closets and wallets are bulging but where loneliness is like an American Express card, and you don’t leave home without it…
From the top to the bottom. From the failures to the famous. From the poor to the rich. From the married to the single. Judy Bucknell was not alone.
Many of us have been spared this cruel cry of abandonment. Oh…you’ve been upset a time or two, but despair? No. Suicide? Of course not. Be thankful that it hasn’t knocked on your door. Pray that it never will…
But this story is for us who know this groan…this cry…this wail…firsthand. This is for anyone whose days are book-ended with broken hearts. To anyone who can find a lonely person simply by looking in the mirror. For you, loneliness is a way of life. The sleepless nights. The lonely bed…The fear of tomorrow. The unending hurt.
…Did it begin in childhood? At the divorce? When the kids left home? At retirement? At the cemetery?
Maybe you’re like Judy…You’re perfectly packaged on the outside…Your clothes are sharp, your waist is thin, your calendar is full, your talk is impressive. But when you are alone…when you look in the mirror, you fool no one…
The most gut-wrenching cry of loneliness in history did not come from a prisoner or a widow or a patient. It came from a hill, from a cross, from a Messiah.
My God! My God! Why have you abandoned me?!?
Words have never before or since carried so much hurt. Never has anyone been so lonely…
(The scene is reminiscent of one that occurred every year for the people of Israel…)
The Israelites go quiet as the priest receives the goat; the pure, unspotted goat. In somber ceremony he places his hands on the young animal. As the people witness, the priest makes his proclamation: “The sins of the people be upon you.” The innocent animal receives the sins of God’s People. All the lusting, adultery, lying, and cheating are transferred from the sinners to this goat…to this scapegoat.
He is then carried to the edge of the wilderness and released. Banished. Sin must be purged, so the scapegoat is abandoned. “Run, goat! Run!” The people are relieved. Yahweh is appeased. The sinbearer is alone.
And now, here on the hill they call “the place of the skull,” the sinbearer is alone again. Every lie ever told, every object ever coveted, every promise ever broken…they are all on his shoulders. The sinless one has become sin. And God turns away… (Lucado, pp. 45-47)
Scripture says: And darkness covered the whole land…Vincent Wimbush says “God is responsible for all things and God is nowhere to be found.” (Echoes From Calvary, Wimbush, p. 107) So then, wasn’t the despair thicker than the darkness?
Who felt more pain that day? The only child who had never been separated from the Father? Or the Father watching helplessly as the only child was being brutally tortured and executed? Jesus, the Word, who was with God and the Word was God—since the beginning…is completely alone. The Trinity is torn. And Jesus cries out.
My God! Why?!?
We sang songs at his birth about “no crying he makes” but he’s crying today…and his screams fall on deaf ears. They’re the same screams of everyone wandering the wilderness of loneliness. Why?!? Why did you abandon me?!?
Abandoned. Whose face comes to mind when you hear that word? The parents standing over a tiny casket, the relative staring at a hospital bed, a child cowering beneath their abuser, the forgotten in a nursing home, or the frightened friend trying to look brave while taking chemo…everyone whose tear-filled eyes stare into the deafening darkness and beg Why?!?
When we hear these cries of rejection and pain, do we merely wait for God to step in and to act? Or might we hear them calling us to action, so that we must then, according to Peter Knobel, “embrace the pain of others and draw God down from heaven…” (Echoes from Calvary, Knobel, p. 108)
Frank Tupper is former Professor of Theology at Southern Seminary in Louisville, and is about to retire from Wake Divinity. Dr. Tupper lost his wife in the prime of her life after a long and painful fight with cancer—a time about which he says he has never felt “such hopeless pain and such painful hope,” and after a long silence, he shared his scars with some friends of mine recently. He said:
In late spring, 1985, I found a note on my desk at home that I had written more than 2 years earlier—before Betty died—when the storm raged unabated. “It’s 3:00 in the morning, and I do not know what kind of God God is, or whether I believe in God at all.” (Remember, this is a Theology Professor!)
But, Frank says, “I have learned something since I wrote those words, now a lifetime ago. When I have run out of all of my believing, and I am empty to believe any more, I go to the edge of [that dark cross], and I stand looking at Jesus, and I let Jesus [cry] for me. When all of my faith has been swept overboard and I am faith-loss—not of less faith but at a loss for faith—I trust in Jesus’ trusting. The heart-breaking, but unbroken trusting of Jesus—when all of my hopes have been drowned in waves of pain, and I am hope-loss, I hope in Jesus’ hoping…the watery-eyed but gleaming hoping of Jesus. Like all survivors, I cling to Jesus and the grace of God that is hidden in his cross.” (Peace in the Storm, sermon by Frank Tupper, Northminister Baptist, Jackson, MS)
When he echoed the cry of Jesus: “My God! Why have you abandoned me?!?” Frank remembered—in the darkest and most SILENT night of his soul—that even when Jesus felt completely abandoned and alone, Jesus still said “MY God…”
So the next time you, or someone you love, agonize over that question, just imagine Jesus. Imagine him listening. And as he listens intently, see his eyes well up…and then watch his pierced hand brush away a tear. He is there, but he may not solve your dilemma, or offer an answer…(Lucado, p. 48)
In fact, your cries will probably hang unanswered…
…just as he does on the cross…
Benediction? A Benediction is literally “a good word” but I think that “a good word” tonight would dilute the agony of Christ’s question so I will send you out with this:
Lent reminds us that sometimes our questions about life and faith are often uneasy and uncertain.