by Patrick Lafferty
And about the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Editor’s note: This week we are publishing the meditation that will be offered in Good Friday’s noontime service.
I am neither political pundit nor prognosticator, but I am certain that you will never hear any political candidate give this speech:
“My fellow Americans, I want to thank you for your encouragement and support thus far in my campaign—especially the moneyed interests without whose support I’d be giving this speech on the back of a pickup truck. Your large, quiet financial contributions, your smile as you intimated expectations of political reciprocity later. Thanks also to your legal teams for keeping your association with me out of the media whenever you commit anything untoward.
I’d like to thank you all for your passion for the issues I’ve campaigned for—issues I really don’t know too much about, nor have much conviction for. Issues, which the focus groups say, are great for getting attention and currying favor. Issues with statistics—statistics I can rattle off readily because my handlers drill me on them before I take the platform. Statistics that sound legitimate, but can’t be verified—not that anyone wants to.
I’d also like to thank my wife for her unflinching willingness to maintain the charade that I am as wonderful as my haircut and smile suggest. All I had to do was keep you well-dressed, coiffed, and delight you with the prospect of hobnobbing with exotic, influential people—you’ve really kept up appearances! Love you, babe!
Most of all I’d like to thank you, for your personal support of me, because while I have some interest in you, and in making this a better place, I realize that most of what fuels me and my campaign is that I need this. I need to win. I need to feel needed, and winning will help me feel good about myself. That’s my greatest good. And I’m in good company since most of you are the same: your greatest good is no higher than your own good. So we’re made for each other.
So let me conclude with words I don’t really mean: God bless you, and God bless the United States of America.”
If anyone gives that speech, the crowd goes silent, the men spit the olives back into their martini glasses, and the campaign manager suddenly needs smelling salts. It’s a cynical vision of politics, I know, but I’m not alone. One commentator put it this way this week: “November 2012 will be the most important auction in our nation's history.” Sadly there’s probably more truth to this cynical view than we’d like to admit.
The Lord Jesus was no politician. He did not tell people what they wanted to hear in order to curry their favor and increase His following. He greased no palms and took no kickbacks. Yet, in this moment of his deepest agony, Jesus gave perhaps his most transparent speech—one that seems, on one level, an embarrassment. Scandalous to Him and all He’d stood for considering what all He’d said about the goodness of God, His Father. But by His transparency and what follows it, Jesus teaches us two things that go to the very heart of our being.
He teaches us something about fear and something about glory.
Jesus understands fear—He gets it. He’d spoken with foreboding for much of His ministry, alluding to but not elaborating upon His anticipation of being delivered up to the Jewish elites and executed for unsubstantiated crimes.
As the moment approached, the foreboding turned to complex of emotions: sorrowful as He invited some of His disciples to tarry with Him in the Garden of Gethsemane; wistful for some other way to accomplish His father’s will; so anguished that his tears were like drops of blood. And doesn’t drinking the cup of those emotions have an undertone of fear accompanying them?
In a matter of hours, Jesus endures almost everything we might fear: betrayal, ridicule, savagery, intense, unrelenting pain, and the sense of being swallowed up by death. All that He experienced—all that tempted Him with fear. But in His dying words, His transparent anguish does this for us: He teaches us what most to fear. By His outcry, He taught us to fear the abandonment of God most.
All else he suffered provided ample reason for inward terror. Anything fearful in our condition, short of God’s turning Himself away from us, is anything but illusory. But for Jesus to summarize His agony in terms of God’s absence means there can be no greater horror than to know you the rejection of God.
To learn what most to fear has its own merit. It’s always better to know the greater of two dangers. I hit a pop fly to my son in our front yard. He takes off backward, tensing up, trying to track the arc of the ball, straining to position an outstretched glove—and all for fear of dropping the earthbound object. If his path to the ball takes him into the middle of the street, and I do not warn him of the oncoming car driven by the man distracted by his cell phone, then my son will devote disproportionate attention to the lesser of two fears. It does him no good and only harm not to respect the greater threat.
From the cross, Jesus specifies the greater danger, echoing what he said to his disciples in a quieter moment in Matthew 10: “...do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (v.28). Men and circumstances may terrorize you, but they are nothing compared to falling into the hands of the living, and angry, God. (Heb 10:31).
Yet in teaching us what most to fear, Jesus is not inviting us to live in fear. For in what follows His transparent speech, we learn what He did about that greatest fear. Here we come to what He teaches us about glory.
Jesus breathes his last, and in its wake, glorious things happen—things only feebly imagined but now finally realized. The temple curtain is torn in two, signifying both an end to a kind of separation between God and men, and the beginning of a new era of access to the living God. The world literally shakes at the shift. And men and women rise from their graves, signifying an end to death’s stranglehold on all humanity. Even the pervasiveness of cynicism is placed in check, exemplified in the humble concession by a hardened soldier who realized he’d witnessed the death of more than a mere man.
Amid the dark horror of Jesus’ death, the glory of God shines forth, and not just to impress us that God’s power and plan were at work. Glories now bursting forth in living color are meant to teach us where to find our greatest glory—that is, upon what to rest our deepest sense of satisfaction and gratification.
What is, and must become, our most gladdening truth? What idea must we continually circle back to in order to live and die well? The glory that followed His agony reveals that that our greatest satisfaction is to be found in a restored favor with God, and a corresponding freedom from the fear of death.
Jesus celebrates new health and new insight. He hails fresh faith and raw repentance. But the curtain-tearing, rock-splitting, grave-opening tumult points us to where we have to plant our ultimate hopes and seek our ultimate joys. All other delights and pleasures have their own merit, but none like knowing that He knows and loves us and that we will never be apart from Him.
That is what He meant to teach us by His transparency—what most to fear and where to find our glory. But He does more than teach; he means to transform our fears and our glories—from all-consuming to God-endearing.
We all fear. Some of us walked into this room today already rattled. Others of us sit here with this undercurrent of anxiety we can’t quite explain but can’t deny. Left to themselves, those fears become all-consuming. And our natural instinct is to turn from God and appeal to some other truth or remedy, going in a thousand irrational, maniacal directions just to console our soul. I know this, because I do this. So do you.
Jesus identifies with our fears on the cross so that we might identify with His trust in His Father. But He transforms our fears when He invites us to, if you will, filter our fears through the cross: to place our fears against what should be our greatest fear—to see them in the context of being utterly abandoned by God, and then realize Christ Himself has utterly obliterated that reason for fear. Viewing our fears in the shadow of what His cross did convicts us as it consoles us: convicted that our fears betray our failure to believe He’s solved our greatest fear; consoled that, if He can resolve our ultimate fear, he is more than willing and able to help us face our other fears with peace.
He transforms our glories in similar fashion.
We glory in many things—derive great satisfaction from them. In that there’s no harm.
But almost instinctually we find ourselves trying to replicate the successes to preserve the feelings that come with those glories—or we just try to sustain the feelings themselves. In time, one of two things will happen: we let those glories lure us away from God, such that we think we no longer have need of Him. Or we let those glories so define us—tell us who we are and what we’re worth—that when the glories fade, we fade with them. Life devolves into delusion or nostalgia; either way, we’re lost.
Jesus’ transparent speech and death transform our glories by inviting us to filter our glories through the glory His cross purchased us. When simple pleasures or monumental achievements gratify us, we take them to God by reminding ourselves of what constitutes our greatest gratification.
Jesus doesn’t chide us for the satisfaction we find, for instance in achievements, or our talents, or our children. He’s not interested in stealing joy from these lesser glories. Rather, He means to remind us that all the glories of this life are themselves gifts—gifts that point us to a Giver to whom we are then endeared all the more. Viewing our glories in the light of our greatest glory keeps us from forgetting the God from whom all blessings—and glories—flow.
Do you see how fear and glory are inseparably linked? Unless Jesus’ transparent speech transforms our fears from all-consuming to God-endearing, fear will often fuel our pursuit of some glories. And frustration or loss of our glories will create fear. This is a good Friday because Jesus’ death gives us the hope and the power to have rightly ordered fears and glories.
So to those of you in this room who don’t know exactly why you’ve come, save for some indefinable urge to consider Jesus again, His speech to you is His Gospel: trust in what His death did for you and He will rescue you from all-consuming fears and intoxicating, yet unsatisfying, glories.
And to those who have yielded to Him, but who find themselves beset with lingering fears, or dulled to the glory of God by your own lesser glories, humble yourselves in the sight of God by taking your abiding fears and distracting glories to the foot of this cross. That is your spiritual formation.
We may never get a wholly transparent politician but we shall always have a transparent Lord, who sees through you and died for you anyway.