In the National Gallery of Art in the USA there hangs a unique painting of Calvary. The figure of Christ on the cross is almost hidden in the darkness. At first glance one sees nothing but the dim figure of the suffering Saviour, but as you look longer and with closer scrutiny of the picture it is possible to view another figure behind Jesus, who with outstretched arms is tenderly supporting the suffering One. The face of the person holding Jesus is twisted by even more pain than the One crucified. In this way the artist intends to convey that God the Father is grieving and suffering with His Son as He dies upon the cross (Drescher, Testimony of Triumph, p.51). Although we are incredibly familiar with the fact of the cross and the death of Jesus and even the main reason for Him volunteering to die in our place, yet there is also a mystery here that we can never penetrate as we consider the self sacrifice of the Son of God. To experience abandonment by one with whom one has had perfect unbroken fellowship from eternity, yet not a loss of love but as a result of being the substitute for guilty sinners the wrath of God was displayed by His turning of His back on His beloved Son for our sakes, a painful and humiliating experience for the Lord of glory. We may have been abandoned in a human relationship context, caused grief and heartache by people we love, and still love in spite of their wrong words and actions which we hate; maybe feeling that sense of loneliness or separation from other people with whom we desire friendship or fellowship, or even feeling that we are walking in darkness stumbling along not sure of the how to go forward in our particular circumstances. In a scene so familiar in cities of the Roman world of the first century AD there were occupied crosses at the entrance to the city gates, a deterrent to other citizens to ensure their compliance with the laws of Rome. On this occasion three men hung in public view and one, the man on the central cross cried out Eloi Eloi lama sabachthani? My God My God Why have You forsaken Me?
1. Here we see the Significance of Sin
From noon until three in the afternoon darkness came over all the land. 46 About three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, ‘Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?’ (which means ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’) (Matthew 27:45-46) This was not a natural darkness in Jerusalem that day from 12 noon to 3pm. It was the middle of the day when the sun should have been shining at its brightest rather than totally obscured. It was not an eclipse that lasts for a shorter time than these three hours. It was an act of God the father to veil the sight of the suffering of His beloved Son. God who is a holy God of whom the prophet Habakkuk declared: Your eyes are too pure to look on evil; You cannot tolerate wrong (Habakkuk 1:13). Isaiah 53:4-6 describes in graphic details a sight that Isaiah had not seen, the suffering of God’s perfect Servant on the cross: 3He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering. Like one from whom men hide their faces He was despised, and we esteemed Him not. 4Surely He took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered Him stricken by God, smitten by Him, and afflicted.5But He was pierced for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon Him, and by His wounds we are healed. 6We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all. God cannot excuse sin; He cannot avoid punishing wrongdoing as it deserves. It must be dealt with properly as He is a God of justice and righteousness. He created us to have a living healthy relationship with Him, but the barrier of our sin stands boldly in our way, as surely as if we were driving a car along a road with a Grand Canyon sized hole on the pathway ahead of us which we could not cross. Isaiah 59:2 screams out from the page: Your iniquities have separated you from your God; your sins have hidden His face from you, so that He will not hear. A human being who has never grasped the seriousness of their own sins, the problem of the depravity of their own human heart that was alone sufficient to have put Jesus on the cross, has never seen themselves as God sees us all too clearly. God did not send His Son to save us because there was anything in us that merited His intervention. There was nothing but the stench of rebellion against His perfect holy standards. Human beings too often –if we are honest – enjoy sinning! The consequences of sin may be painful and if there is no repentance possibly eternal implications, but at the time it might appear fun and a source of pleasure. Christians need to be careful in the way we present the gospel because if we tell people that sinning will you miserable , they may well turn round and say, well actually I am enjoying what you are calling sin! Salvation is a gift of God for people who have glimpsed something of your /my plight and asked God to intervene.
Before we called out to Him, God knew we would need a Saviour and sent Jesus to die in our place. God the Father was not angry with Jesus when He suffered on the cross in fact He had never loved Him more that when He hung there in our place, recognising the cost of what His beloved Son was doing in the place of hell-deserving sinners. The covering of that awful scene with darkness was an equivalent action to His words at Jesus’ baptism: This is My Son whom I love; with Him I am well pleased (Matthew 3:17). Jesus on the cross here is quoting from Psalm 22:1-4: My God, My God, why have you forsaken Me? Why are you so far from saving Me, so far from the words of My groaning? O My God, I cry out by day, but You do not answer, by night and am not silent…but You are enthroned as the Holy One; you are the praise of Israel. In You our fathers put their trust and You delivered them. They cried out to You and were saved; in You they trusted and were not disappointed. The chief priests and other religious leaders of the nation had taunted Him with these words: He saved others but He cannot save Himself! Let now this Christ, this king of Israel, come down from the cross that we may see and believe (Matthew 27:42). They could not have been more wrong – if He had come down their belief would have been insufficient for salvation as the penalty of their sin and ours would not have been paid; reconciliation with God the Father had not been obtained until Jesus met the cost in full in His own person, in His own sacrifice on Calvary. Madame Chiang Kai-shek, a Chinese writer told the story of a farmer who became a hero in her country during an earthquake. His farm was on high land. As he looked down the valley to the shoreline, he saw that the earthquake was causing the ocean to pile up and a tidal wave would soon engulf the lowlands below him. He realised that his neighbours would perish unless he could call them immediately to his hill top. Quickly he put a torch to his dry rice barn and rang the fire gong. The people looked up and saw the smoke rising. They rushed up the hill at once to help fight the fire. But even before they reached the burning barn, they heard the roar of the waves below, covering the fields they had just left. Immediately they knew that their neighbour had sacrificed all his possessions in order to save their lives (Drescher, p. 50). God in Christ has given His best, His all for you –what is your response to Him?
2. Here we see the Significance of Gethsemane
Jesus had placed a special emphasis in His life on earth on the closeness of His fellowship with His heavenly Father. For example, John 8:29: The One who sent Me is with Me; He has not left Me alone, for I always do what pleases Him. In a similar way in John 16:32 Jesus said to His disciples: A time is coming, and has come when you will be scattered, each to His own home, You will leave Me all alone. Yet I am not alone; for My Father is with Me. In Gethsemane Jesus knew what lay ahead of Him. It was the only time in His life when He was alone, when He would experience total isolation weighed down by the weight of carrying our sins. In the light of such a predicament Jesus prayed to His Father: Father if You are willing, take this cup from Me; yet not My will but Yours be done… Luke 22:42).The disciples were asked to stand with Him, to support Him in prayer, but already one had betrayed Him to the authorities, eight for whatever reason were not in a suitable spiritual state to be invited to the prayer meeting in Gethsemane and the three that were taken there repeatedly fell asleep –not exactly the most promising candidates for the leadership of the Christian Church due to start its programme of world evangelisation in a couple of months time that year! They had all they declared that they were in good spiritual shape and that they would go with Jesus all the way –yet within hours their words mocked them as they forsook Him and fled. What a warning and a challenge to us- it is easy to make promises to the Lord in Church on a Sunday, but living it out throughout the week can be a tough proposition. Are you? Am I?in a right spiritual state with the Lord so that He can use us in His service; eight of those first disciples were left at the edge of the garden and this was out of the twelve people Jesus handpicked to be His closest followers.
This was a most solemn time of prayer. Luke 22:44 records: And being in anguish, He prayed more earnestly, and His sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground. We are talking of an open-air time of prayer after dark when a cool or even cold air can be felt all around you. Can you imagine what intensity of prayer could produce such physical symptoms? I must admit I have great difficulty visualising such an intensity of commitment in prayer. I have certainly never prayed in such an earnest manner. How many of us can say –if any – that we can understand such anguish of spirit. To avoid embarrassment at the Son of God apparently feeling so vulnerable in His agonising hour some Christians have tried to play down what happened in the Garden of Gethsemane. Theophylact an eleventh-century AD Byzantine bishop in Bulgaria declared that: ‘Jesus spoke this word for us; for He was never forsaken by God, but we were’. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), leading RC Dominican theologian stated: ‘The forsakenness only applied to Jesus’ body’. Or the classic comment comes from German rationalist philosopher Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834) who stated: ‘We may safely conclude from the application which the Saviour made of this holy hymn (Psalm 22) to Himself…that also in this moment… He thought and felt about His death as clearly and calmly as we find Him doing everywhere in those last addresses by which He sought to prepare His disciples for His death.’ (cited in Drescher, p. 52) Gethsemane was anything but an atmosphere of calm detachment! There was a holy dignity, but also a holy agony at the path of suffering that lay before Jesus, culminating in a holy sorrow concerning your sin and mine that caused Jesus to endure the cross. If you have not yet come to faith –you need to realise it was your sin that put Jesus on the cross. One day God will ask you; what was your response to My beloved Son’s sacrifice for you? We need to give a response now that will be sufficient on that day before the Lord!
3. Here we see the Special Love of God
On the lips of many of us at some time or other are the words: ‘You don’t know what I’m going through’ or ‘I don’t know what you are going through’ –how true those words are. Listen to these words from the book of Hebrews concerning Jesus. Hebrews 2:17-18: For this reason He had to be made like His brothers in every way, in order that He might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that He might make atonement for the sins of the people. Because he Himself suffered when He was tempted, He is able to help those who are being tempted. In Amos 8:9-10 there is a prophecy about the judgement of God upon sinful Israel: In that day, declares the sovereign Lord, I will make the sun go down at noon and darken the earth in broad daylight. I will turn your religious feasts into mourning and all your singing into weeping… I will make that time like mourning for an only son… David in Psalm 37:25 could declare: I was young and now I am old, yet I have never seen the righteous forsaken… Yet Jesus, the unique, one and only Son of God: cried out in a loud voice, Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani? — which means, My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Jesus in John 15:13-14 said: Greater love has no-one than this that one lay down his life for his friends. You are My friends if you do what I command. Count Nicolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf (1700-1760), the famous leader of the Moravian Christian missionary movement was in a church as a young man and a picture of Christ on the cross caught his eye and the caption under the picture led to his conversion. It said: ‘Lo! This I have done for Thee. What hast Thou done for me? It stopped the wealthy young ruler in his tracks and led him to consecrating his fortune, his talents and time to the cause of Christ. After his conversion he set up a missionary society that sent missionaries all over the world. It was a group of his missionaries on a trip to America that pointed unconverted Anglican Vicar John Wesley to Jesus. ‘I went to convert the heathen but who would convert me’ was Wesley’s later remark on that encounter. The cross destroys sentimental teaching of a ‘larger hope’ of people getting into heaven having consciously rejected Jesus; for God to put His Son through the agonies of Calvary and for that not to be essential for salvation would be an act of sadism not love. It is though a picture of priceless love because it was the only way for sinners like you and me to be saved and united in fellowship with God the Father. Have you responded to His love? Here was a cry of anguish may you never echo it! Here was a cry of separation may you never experience it, because you in Christ have experienced the love of God, obtained for you and me at Calvary Amen