Sunday, April 8, 2012

To Hell and Back: The 4th Word from the Cross

For a dozen years I have been participating in the Community Good Friday Service held at the local United Methodist Church. Preachers from the local churches--Catholic, Lutheran, Methodist, Vineyard, Episcopal--each preach on one of the 7 words Christ spoke from the cross. I was asked to preach on Matthew 27:46.

"My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"

No words are more chilling. Jesus has already undergone horrible violence to his body. A close friend has betrayed him. All his other friends deserted him during his arrest and trial. The religious leaders of his people have handed him over to a pagan empire. He has been stripped naked and hung by a public road so that his death will be humiliating. Now people, some of whom are total strangers, are mocking him. But just when it looks as if things couldn't get any worse, they do. He senses the withdrawal of God.

Does he really? It could just be that Jesus is depressed. He only feels that God has abandoned him because of all the other things that have gone wrong.

Or maybe he is exaggerating. Like when we have a bad day. You know, the alarm doesn't go off, we're late, the car won't start and we locked ourselves out of the house and left the cell phone on the dresser so we can't call anyone. We think: God must hate us!

Or maybe Jesus is drawing attention to the prophetic words of Psalm 22 so his disciples will have further proof that his death was predicted.

I don't think so. I'm sure Jesus was depressed but God's absence wasn't a conclusion based on his other miseries; it was the chief cause of his misery. I don't think Jesus was just being dramatic or engaging in hyperbole when he said God had abandoned him. And I don't think Jesus was concocting clues to the Biblical precedents for his predicament. I do think he was so saturated with Scripture that the words that sprung to his lips were exactly those that described his condition. He was completely alienated from God the Father. And it wrung this cry from the depths of his soul.

When we contemplate the cross, we concentrate on the physical agonies. And they were considerable. One of the things that attracted so much attention to the film "The Passion of the Christ" was the brutally realistic depiction of the tortures Jesus endured. My son and I saw it soberly at the theatre. We told my wife and daughter they would not want to see it. I can't recommend it to any parishioners that are the least squeamish about explicit violence. A year after its release my son bought me the DVD. It took me a year to get up the courage to watch it. It's not a popcorn movie.

What Jesus suffered at the hands of the temple guards and Roman soldiers was appalling. His wounds were horrific. But at the heart of his agonies was this one: that the God who had always been there for him was gone.

He had to be. Jesus had elected out of his love for us to bear the brunt of our evil, to take on the consequences of the sins of the whole world. What is the ultimate result of sin? Something called the Second Death. It is not mere separation from our loved ones and all the good things of this life. It is separation from the source of all love and goodness. We cannot have goodness apart from God any more than we can have light without a light source. We cannot have love without a lover and we cannot have the divine love without the God who is love. The opposite of love is not hate. Hate still implies a relationship, a connection. It is possible to transform hate into love. No, the opposite of love is the total lack of a connection. If Jesus was truly to take on the consequences of our rejection of God and his ways, he must experience the estrangement from God it naturally produces.

But how much worse it was for him! We live with our separation from God everyday. We find ways to silence the pain, to muffle the longing, to distract us from the emptiness. Eventually, if we do not turn to him, we manage to live with the deep chronic ache. But Christ from all eternity knew the love of the Father for the Son and now, somehow, he is cut off. Rip a baby from her mother's arms and she will cry as if struck. Jesus felt like that infant but in an infinitely deeper sense. It was excruciating; it was excoriating; it was hell.

What is hell but separation from God? The old translation of the Apostles' Creed said of Jesus "he descended into hell." The newer translation is "he descended to the dead," a more accurate rendering. But there is truth in the old version. For our sake, Jesus took on the punishment for our sin. And part of that punishment was to experience our eventual exile from God.

We cannot know what it was like for him. We cannot begin to understand what it is to have not just the rug pulled from underneath you but also the floor, the ground, the earth itself, all you have ever counted on, suddenly gone. All light is extinguished; all communication is cut off; and you can feel...nothing. Was Jesus' experience something like that?

When I was a child, I saw a film in which 3 astronauts are marooned in space. To give the others more time and oxygen, the captain climbs out into space and cuts off his tether to the capsule. As his crewmates watch in horror, he floats off irretrievably to drift forever in the cold dark silent void of space. To me, that was as awful an end as I could imagine.

Hell is exile from the warm love at the center of the universe. But it is a self-imposed exile. The gates of hell, as C. S. Lewis observed, are locked from inside. We are not flung into hell by God so much as we fling ourselves away from God. It is as if an astronaut, disgusted with all things earthly, pushed away from his craft and launched himself into the vacuum in the belief that anything is better than what he leaves behind. His trajectory will take him further from what he hates but its end is utter loneliness and death. And to bring him back, his rescuer must also fling himself into the darkness.

It was the thought of leaping into the void that had Jesus sweating blood that night in Gethsemane. Yes, he wanted God to veto the beating and the flogging and the nailing; yes, he wanted his Father to waive the blood loss and the dehydration and the air hunger; yes, he wanted to avoid his rejection by the whole social order and the desertion of his friends and the jeering and humiliation by uncaring passersby. But I think what he most dreaded was this moment--when the clouds covered the sun and the sky went dark and God hid his face.

How could this happen? How can God be abandoned by God? How can God be God forsaken? How can Jesus be God damned? I don't know. All I do know is that our Lord plummeted to the very depths of the abyss between us and God. Like a free diver, holding onto the weight of our sins, he sank to the bottom of the ocean of our rejection. He went as far as only he could. And he did it for us.

But nature abhors a vacuum and God's nature abhors the absence of love. The void tried to contain Jesus. All that afternoon and all that night and all the next day and all the next night, death clenched its teeth and clamped its jaws and tried to swallow the Son of God like a chewed up piece of meat. But early on Sunday morning, Christ punched a hole in death. Life and love and hope flooded back through the gaping mouth of the tomb. And we need not fear hell anymore.

Whatever hell you have known, whatever despair you have encountered, whenever God seems distant and unreachable, know that Jesus has been there, too. Whenever love is gone, whenever hope seems dead, whenever faith seems absurd, know that Jesus has been there, too. Whenever you are so blind with pain you cannot see God's glory, whenever you are so deafened by the jeers of the crowd that you cannot hear God's voice, whenever you are so numb from the coldness of human hearts that you cannot feel his presence, know that Jesus has been there, too. And reach out your hand anyway. He is always there, no matter what, to pull you out. Don't push him away. Don't make it permanent. No matter how hellish your circumstances are, no matter how deep the pit you have dug for yourself, no matter how far you have fallen, Jesus can save you. Jesus has been to hell and back and he has the scars to prove it. He descended into hell. So you don't have to.

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