Wednesday, February 14, 2024
In sharing midweek services once again this year for Lent with Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Plainview, Pastor John Krahn and I agreed to have this sermon series on the seven last words of Christ on the cross, starting today, Ash Wednesday. So we can blame Pastor Krahn for such a heavy-duty text on an already heavy day which happens to also be Valentine’s Day; Jesus’ last words in the gospels of Mark and Matthew: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” For some of us, this is a nice holiday to feel the love from family and friends and especially from our romantic partners. For some of us, this is not our favorite holiday. When I was in college, I had a friend who threw a party for people who were single called “Freedomfest” on Valentine’s Day. Having just gone through a bad breakup, I think my friend was trying to cheer himself and others up to celebrate the “freedom” of not being in a committed relationship. It felt a bit hollow. It was difficult to admit we were actually lonely. Only through Jesus, of course, can we experience true freedom and true everlasting love.
The surgeon general warned us in 2022 that loneliness is an epidemic and public health emergency in this country. For those of you feeling lonely or forsaken and for whom Valentine’s Day is not such a happy holiday but a painful reminder of loss or broken relationships, it may be comforting to know that Jesus shares our human experience and knows what it’s like to feel low and alone. Here we have a very human Jesus facing his own death with a sense of isolation and loneliness from God our heavenly Father. His disciples have denied, betrayed, and abandoned him. Other bystanders are still criticizing and taunting him. Jesus knows what it is like to die and walks alongside us in our living and in our dying.
But God does not leave Jesus or us here in this state of despair or with a sense of abandonment. No matter our relationship status on our social media accounts – single, separated, divorced, married, widowed, “in a relationship,” God first loved us, before the foundation of the world, before we were formed in our mother’s womb. God made an extraordinary commitment to us to be in this loving relationship with each one of us eternally through sending his only Son Jesus to die on a cross for us. Thankfully, even here in the retelling of Jesus’ death, Matthew points beyond to the fact that Jesus was also raised for us; that the saints of those who died were raised with him after his resurrection. And that Jesus even in his death was not actually alone but several women were still there and would care for his body and come to the tomb to be surprised by his rising, most of them also named Mary, for some reason! After death comes new life. Out of loneliness comes the gift of relationship.
Jesus quotes the beginning of Psalm 22 which we will hear again on Maundy Thursday as the altar is stripped bare and prepared for Good Friday. It is a psalm of lament which gives voice to these feelings that Jesus shares with us on the cross – grief, deep sadness, suffering, longing for God. It starts out this way, anyway: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” If you hang in there and listen to the whole psalm, though, Psalm 22 moves from naming feelings of despair and abandonment to praising God. “All who go down to the dust, though they be dead, shall kneel before the Lord,” the psalmist writes. “Their descendants shall serve the Lord, whom they shall proclaim to generations to come. They shall proclaim God’s deliverance to a people yet unborn, saying to them, ‘The Lord has acted!’” God answers our cries just as God answers the cries of Jesus on the cross by raising him from the dead. This is why these ashes of repentance, a reminder of our mortality, are placed on our heads in the shape of a cross; death on a cross is not the end of our story but a new beginning. We are on our way to Easter. The Lord has acted. God has not forsaken but redeemed us because of Christ. Thanks be to God! Amen.