Jesus’ Prayer Book, Part 3: Psalm 22

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Good Friday. A young rabbi, unjustly condemned, beaten close to death, hangs naked and humiliated on a cross outside the busy gates of Jerusalem. A few, a very few, brave friends are close by to lend what moral support they can while enemies laugh and taunt and mock him. Clouds grow thick and angry as Rabbi Jesus cries out My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? (Psalm 22:1, NLT) It is not recorded whether or not Jesus quoted the entire psalm. Given his battered state it is highly unlikely. But the psalms were so much a part of the life of an observant Jew that simply reciting the first line would cause the entire psalm to come to the mind of both speaker and listener. It is an interesting choice for Jesus to make because the psalm is divided into two sections. The first, which he quotes from, is filled with pain, frustration and doubt:

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why do you remain so distant? Why do you ignore my cries for help? Every day I call to you, my God but you do not answer. Every night you hear my voice, but I find no relief. Psalm 22:1-2

Who has not felt the bitter taste of those words? Who has not been buffeted about by life so intensely that you are sent sprawling into the dust, beseeching God to help you, only to be greeted by an apparent slamming and bolting of his door? Jesus knew such silence keenly, but at that point there was one thing he could not fathom, perhaps because the weight of all the sins that bore down upon him, all the pain of the world, made him unable to experience the Father’s presence, My God, my God, why have YOU abandoned me? He could understand his apostles abandoning him, he knew their spirits were willing but their flesh was weak. He could understand why the Sunday crowd that greeted him with palms and Hosannas abandoned him. It was the allure of the novel and the desire for newness, a desire that quickly fades in the face of the commonplace, in this case yet another crucifixion, another hope lost. But why did God forsake him? Strange how the community that is the Trinity, because of the Incarnation, is now aware of what we fragile creatures experience when we feel that God has left us alone. Abandonment now is not foreign to God because Jesus experienced all things that we do yet never sinned. If this psalm was nothing but a laundry list of pain and confusion, darkness and suffering, we could easily despair. But there is a second part to the psalm Jesus quoted from the cross:

Praise the Lord, all you who fear him! For he has not ignored the suffering of the needy. He has not turned and walked away. He has listened to their cries for help. I will praise you among all the people I will fulfill my vows in the presence of those who worship you. The poor will eats and be satisfied. All who seek the Lord will praise him, their hearts will rejoice with everlasting joy. Psalm 22:23-26

There are dark times in life, times that test our spiritual vision to the breaking point. During such times we may not be able to see the presence of God or hear his still, small voice calling to us above the din of our own wandering heart. It is during these Good Friday periods in our lives that we need to hold fast to all of Psalm 22. Yes, the first part was uttered in darkness, but Good Friday was not the last word; the laments of the first 21 verses are not the whole psalm. Just as the bloody cross gave way to the empty tomb, so this psalm ends in 10 verses of hope and joy and promise. Our God is not a God of abandonment. He does not play mindless, masochistic games with our lives. We cost him far too much for that. But he does allow the dark times because it is through just such moments that we often grow the most in our relationship with him, growth that never would have happened otherwise. A plant will not grow if all it has is unlimited sunshine. There must also be days of cloud and rain or nothing good comes from the buried seed. And so with us. Perhaps you are going through just such a Good Friday event in your life. It stings, it hurts, it feels as if God has abandoned you to find your own way through. If so, then read all of Psalm 22, and remember that the evening of that long ago Friday looked bleaker than bleak. But the sun did rise again…and the Son rose as he said he would.

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