‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’
It doesn’t need much imagining to capture something of the despair, of the agony, of the sheer sense of utter abandonment, of the deeply routed human fear of pain and death that is all caught up and embraced within those simple words we are to focus on this evening – ‘Eloi – my God‘.
Mel Gibson’s film, ‘The Passion of the Christ’ has had the important effect on those of us who managed to watch it of vividly and dramatically showing us just how complete was Jesus’s betrayal from friends and foes alike, how brutal and dehumanising was his torture and unjust trial of sorts, how agonising was the journey towards and then of cause onto the cross, how no pain in the world can compare to the pain of torture, the feeling of absolute abandonment and of cause slow suffocation hung up high on a cross.
When Jesus cries ‘My God’ it is a cry of utter desolation, of complete despair, of unbearable agony, it is the cry of a human at the lowest point a human can ever experience, it is the cry of Jesus whose life has been in perfect communion with God and yet on the cross facing slow death feeling utterly abandoned, totally forsaken by God.
May I ask you to hold onto that cry of anguish, those words of desolation and abandonment, in your mind for a while as we turn to some similar but yet very different words to Eloi – my God.
The other words I want to visit are from Mark Haddon’s book: ‘The curious incident of the dog in the night time.’ Many of you will have read this outstanding novel where the main character is 15 year old Christopher who suffers from autism. If you’ve not read it and would like to gain an incite into the condition of autism, far beyond what can be achieved by a medical text book, it is well worth a read, as well as being an excellent novel.
Christopher’s father is probably the second main character in the book and he is a man who has been pushed to his absolute limits. Christopher’s father has the immense unrelenting demands involved in looking after a severely autistic child.
Amongst the behavioural issues Christopher’s father is putting up with year after year would be Christopher refusing to talk for periods of up to five weeks, being unable to eat any food that is yellow or brown or any different foods which are touching each other, not being able to cope with vacuum cleaning being done as it results in furniture being moved and when furniture is not in the right place, Christopher lies on the floor and moans loudly or smashes things. This moaning and smashing he might do in all sorts of places and for all sorts of reasons. To add to his lot in life, Christopher’s mother has left for another man and home and now Christopher’s father has to cope with Christopher by himself.
After a particularly trying episode, Christopher’s father has reached the end of his tether, and this is where an echo of Jesus’ cry of abandonment ‘My god’ comes in: ‘God only knows’ he cries, ‘God only knows what I have had to put up with.’ Of cause what Christopher’s father is saying here is actually nobody knows how devastatingly hard it is to cope with Christopher by himself and not only does nobody know but nobody cares either.
So what does Jesus’ cry, a cry which comes from that place of fear and pain of isolation and abandonment, a cry of ‘My God’ have to say about Christopher’s fathers ’God only knows’ and what does that despair of no body knows and no body cares say about Jesus on the cross?
Well when Christopher’s father cries ‘God only knows‘, while he might think that he means nobody knows, actually he’s got it absolutely right, God does know and God does care.
God does know and God does care because the story of Jesus’ desolate, abandoned cry of ‘My God’ is the story of God’s overflowing love and care for each and every person, a story well presented in Stephen Cottrell, your bishop of Reading’s, book ‘I Thirst’ from which I draw. The story of cause starts at the beginning for right at the heart of our faith is the conviction that from the beginning of human existence, God has made humans free, free to accept and respond to his love and free to reject it as well.
The Old Testament, starting with Adam and Eve, and then all the way through the stories of the wandering and later settled Hebrew people, records God seeking to work with a chosen people to find a way to show what total love, total obedience and total freedom actually means for human kind. And yet, alongside the astonishing insights when their prophesises and wisdom strike at the heart of God, we read of time and time again God’s ways and God’s inclusive, unconditional love being rejected. The journey of the Hebrew people is an illustration of the journey of human kind and it shows that there seems to be no way that by ourselves we can receive and respond to God and be in true communion with him.
How does God respond to this condition of human kind? Does he in turn reject us and leave us to our own devises? Are those deepest fears of Christopher’s father that no one, absolutely no one knows or cares, are those fears the reality of our human condition? Does God fail to know us, who we are and what we are about? Well perhaps it is ‘Eloi’, our chosen word of Jesus on the cross selected for this evening which begins to give our faiths answer to those questions. Because of cause Christian belief sees human kinds rejection of God as the start not the end of the story. Jesus, whose name means ‘God saves’ is born and lives amongst us. He shares in our joys, he enters our pains, he takes on the vocation of the Hebrew people to be in perfect, life giving communion with God.
Jesus lives out God’s love for all and as he does, so to does that radical, inclusive love challenge and threaten. The world does not like this message and so the world puts the message to death, Jesus becomes the sacrifice for our sin, he takes on the cost of God’s love reaching out to us and God’s love being rejected by us and in doing so allows the power of God’s love to finally and completely break through into our lives. And as he hangs on the cross, alone and betrayed, broken and dying, in the place of complete and utter abandonment, he knows all there is to know about being human. He knows and he cares, deeply and completely, now and in all generations, for us and for Christopher’s Dad and for everyone. Jesus’ ‘My God’ is the most complete answer to all our cries of ‘god only knows’ because in Jesus’ ‘My God’ we know that God withholds nothing in his outpouring of life and love into our lives, we are completely known and we are completely loved.
The death of Jesus was of cause an event which took place 2000 years ago and so we do need to ask how does Jesus’ solidarity and identification with the human condition then have any bearing on some of the brokenness and pain in the world today? Well it is our Trinitarian faith, our faith of one God known in three ways that helps here. Not only do we want to say Jesus is Godlike, if we have a Trinitarian faith we also need to say God is Christlike. The Jesus event, while a event in a historic context is far more than only a historic event as it reveals the ongoing eternal nature of God. Jesus offering all that he is in love, fully identifying with us and knowing us reveals a God who continuously offers himself to us in love, identifies with us and knows us.
We may or may not see a connection between Christopher’s fathers ‘God only knows’ and Jesus’ ‘My god.’ We may or may not ask ‘well so what? – the fact that God does know and God does care doesn’t seem to make much difference, in fact Jesus loving and caring ended in his despair and death .’ And of cause we need to say ‘yes it did – Jesus was rejected and Jesus died.’ But we also want to say that that is not the end of the story. God’s capacity to love and fill us with new life lay dormant for three days in the corpse of an executed man and then on the third day God raises Jesus to life. Perfect love, God’s love cannot be defeated, nothing stops it , not rejection, not despair, not sceptism, not even death itself.
‘God only knows what I have to put up with’ cries Christopher’s father. Thank God that Jesus’ words on the cross, Jesus’ cry of ‘eloi – My God’ tells us a story that God does know and that God does care and that God offers transformation and new life and nothing, nothing at all will ever ever overcome that.
Rev’d John Whittaker, Vicar of Holy Trinity, Barrow upon Soar and St. Mary’s, Walton-le-Wolds
10th February 2008