(Matthew 21:1-17, 26:36-46)
What is the worst thing anyone could be called upon to suffer?
That is a difficult question to answer and the answers given by different people would most certainly differ. We can be sure some would say, “To lose by accidental death the most important person in your life, without even having the chance to say goodbye, especially if the last words spoken between you were critical rather than caring.” Another might suggest, “It would be to know that you had killed someone in an accident for which you were responsible, and to see those who loved him or her weeping uncontrollably.” Still another, after giving the question very serious consideration, would perhaps respond, “It would be to learn that the person you loved did not love you anymore, but had fallen in love with someone else, especially if the other person was one of your closest and trusted friends.” Finally, I am confident many would give this answer: “Seeing your spouse, or one of your children, suffering terribly and slowly dying, or suffering from the death of the mind and not even knowing who you are.”
All of us would have our own opinions. Speaking for myself, I might share something terrible I have actually experienced: “Seeing one of your own precious daughters terribly abused as a victim of domestic violence, and then to have your son-in law viciously attack you because you had come to her defense.” Or, I could choose another life experience that was almost too painful for me to bear: “Seeing my beloved mother slowly dying from ovarian cancer, suffering for two years, and then also having a stroke, being unable to speak; and one day reading a note she had written to me, asking, ‘Why are they keeping me alive when they know I am going to die anyway?'”
This is GOOD FRIDAY, and I have found myself thinking about my Lord and how He faced the worst things He could possibly be called upon to bear. What He had to endure was worse than any of the things we might have to bear in this life. Our pain cannot even begin to compare with His, and the torment He knew He was facing in that last week of His life as the Son of Man. Christ had many difficult experiences during His earthly life as the historical Jesus, but the very worst was yet to come. He was not taken by surprise by anything that happened during those final days. He knew there was no way to avoid the cross, for He had come into the world for this purpose, to offer Himself as the sacrificial Lamb of God “to save the lost.” He also knew that one of His own disciples was going to betray Him, and another close and trusted friend would deny Him in His greatest hour of need. He knew the other disciples would run away, and lock themselves in behind closed door because of their fears. He knew He would be left alone during His terrible struggle of soul, and He needed friends to remain with Him. However, none of these things were the worst thing Jesus was going to be called upon to suffer!
When He entered Jerusalem on Sunday, the day we know as PALM SUNDAY, Jesus was not deceived by the shouts of the people welcoming Him as the One so many in the crowd were hoping would prove to be the Messiah God had promised to send to redeem Israel. He knew full well that He was not the kind of Messiah they were expecting, nor the kind of Messiah they wanted. He had come among them as the Suffering Servant, foretold by Isaiah (Isaiah 53), but they were looking for one who would have the God-given power and authority to deliver them from their Roman oppressors; one who would have the power and authority needed to organize a mighty army to overthrow their overlords. This explains why on the first day of that last week, as He rode into the city seated on the foal of an ass (just as God’s prophet Zechariah had foretold in his Messianic prophecy)—not seated on a white stallion like a conquering hero, returning victoriously from a great battle, but riding a lowly donkey—the Jewish zealots were sure He was the One, the Deliverer they had been praying would come in their lifetime.
Many in that great throng were prepared to crown Him king. However, His first act was to enter the temple precincts and overturn the tables of the moneychangers who had turned His Father’s house into what He called a “den of thieves.” That was no way to win friends and influence people; in fact it only served to antagonize the temple authorities and galvanize the plans of those who were already plotting, not only to discredit Him, but plotting His death!
They were carefully and cleverly setting a trap for Jesus, having accused Him of pitting Himself against them (i.e. the Priests, the Scribes, and Pharisees in His teachings—see Matthew 23). They were saying His own words had condemned Him. They were also accusing Him of being a false prophet, of perverting the Law, and of promoting himself as the “King of the Jews.” The latter charge was one that also aroused the suspicion of Rome’s representatives in Jerusalem, for the High Priest was using this latter accusation to force the civil authorities to interrogate this dangerous demagogue whose growing popularity and power was a threat to Rome. Furthermore, it was widely reported that the followers of this Jesus were refusing to say, “Caesar is Lord.” They would not put any incense on Caesar’s altar, but were claiming, loudly, “Jesus is Lord!” So, “all the chief priests and the elders of the people conferred together against Jesus in order to bring about his death. They bound him, led him away, and handed him over to Pilate the governor”. (Matthew 27:1-2)
Still, the worst was yet to come!
You probably know the rest of the story. After questioning Him, Pilate found no fault in Jesus, but realizing that the religious authorities had succeeded in fueling the flames of anger that had spread over the crowd like a wildfire that was in danger of getting out of control; fearing “…that a riot was beginning;” hearing the crowd crying out for Jesus to be crucified; “….took some water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, ‘I am innocent of this man’s blood.” He handed Jesus over to Roman soldiers to be stripped and flogged, tearing His flesh to shreds. Then they put a scarlet robe on Him, crowned Him with a cruel crown of thorns, put a reed in his hand to serve as a royal scepter, and bowed down Him in vulgar jest, shouting, “Behold your king! Hail King of the Jews!” After mocking Him, “… they spat on Him, and took the reed and struck Him on the head….then they led him away to be crucified.” (Matthew 27;24-31)
You may be trying to visualize His suffering, His torment, and saying to yourself, “Surely, this was the worst they could do to Him!” But NO, you know this was by no means the greatest agony Jesus had to bear. The worst was still to come. His greatest agony was not when they made Him carry His own cross in His weakened condition to the place of execution, or when they nailed Him to His cross, or when they raised that cross and dropped into the hole that had been dug for it, with a dreadful thud which only added to His torture. Nor was it during those long hours that followed, when the soldiers knelt knelt beneath His cross, not to repent for what they had done, but to throw dice for His robe, not knowing they were gambling for the garment of God. Then, after they had finished, they “sat down there and kept watch over him…and those who passed by derided him saying, ‘He saved others; but He cannot save himself…let him come down from the cross now, and we will believe him.'” (Matthew 27:40)
Even then, Jesus knew He was still facing the dreadful moment that was now fast approaching—when He would feel the weight of the world’s sin; when He would experience that horrible sense of separation from His Father in heaven; when He would receive the punishment your sins and mine deserve; when He realized that although He had never sinned He was being made sinful, being made to experience the very worst that He could ever possibly be made to feel. We cannot even begin to wrap our minds around it—His horrible sense of abandonment, when all those standing by and listening to His words from would hear that painful cry of dereliction: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Yes, that was the worst agony of all for Jesus!
Although it may sound strange to your ears, I must confess I am thankful for that cry of dereliction, for it means that Jesus loved me so much that He was willing to experience the hell that my sins deserve, so that I might experience the joy of heaven which I could never deserve!
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” On the surface, that question does not sound like one the Son of God would ask. Was it a prayer? If so, it may not sound like an appropriate prayer for Christ to offer in the hour of His death, or at any other time for that matter—to ask, “Why,” and to not stop there, but ask His heavenly Father, “Why have you forsaken me?” Well, as for me, I like everything about this question; I like the rawness of it! I like the reality of it! As we say in the Apostles’ Creed, “He descended into hell.” It means Christ came all the way into our flesh completely, totally, not only sharing our flesh, but bearing our sins, and all our own “WHYS.”
If it was not wrong for Jesus to ask, “Why?” then we can be sure it is not wrong for us to ask God, “Why?” at any point in our lives.
His cry from the cross tells me that Christ was willing to bear the most hellish experience of all for me; yes, for me, and for you, too. He felt that sense of abandonment that we all can feel at times; not just of being abandoned by another human being, but even feeling that we have been abandoned by God! Was Jesus really abandoned? That is a tough question. I am not sure anyone can say that he or she has the only right answer, “the whole truth and nothing but the truth.” For as the Apostle Paul says, “Now we see through a glass dimly (or darkly)…now we know only in part.” (I Corinthians 13; 9, 12) I only need to know this—Jesus paid it all!
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Is it any wonder that we are told darkness covered the earth at that moment? Was it just Jerusalem? Was it just Judea? Or was it all the earth? Was it an eclipse of the sun, or some inexplicable cosmic event? Who can say? What difference does it really make? All we really need to know is that the death of Jesus was indeed a cosmic event, for He is the Cosmic Christ!