“When it was noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. And at three Jesus cried out with a loud voice, ‘Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?’ which is translated, ‘My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?'” (CSB – Read the chapter)
What do you do when you feel like God has abandoned you? Where do you go? To whom do you turn? For many folks, when God seems to be absent, they get angry and turn from Him as if that’ll somehow show Him. We might turn hard into some kind of sin like a small child turns to bad behavior to get the attention of parents he feels aren’t giving him enough. We may simply turn to apathy toward Him, convinced that if He doesn’t care, then we won’t either. While all of these reactions are totally understandable, none of them will ultimately accomplish their aim. Pushing away the very person you want to have near doesn’t accomplish anything like what you are trying to achieve. Jesus, hanging and dying on the cross, felt utterly abandoned by God. Theologically, we know that He was. Where He turns offers us a good reminder of where we should turn in our own lives when we are feeling alone.
The death of Jesus was a wild event. It’s not that His dying itself was wild, but everything happening around Him during that six-hour process was. Mark only gives us a partial picture of it here. He says that “darkness came over the whole land.” And while some folks might try and point to something like an incredibly conveniently timed total solar eclipse, the darkness lasted for three hours. The dimming effect from a solar eclipse doesn’t last anywhere near that long. It could be that thick blanket of clouds moved in and that’s what Mark and Matthew as well were describing. It could also be that this was entirely more supernatural; God dimmed the sun itself. The light of the world was being snuffed out and so creation itself reflected it.
If that was the only thing that happened, we could fairly well ignore it. But it wasn’t. Matthew tells us more in 27:50-53: “But Jesus cried out again with a loud voice and gave up his spirit. Suddenly, the curtain of the sanctuary was torn in two from top to bottom, the earth quaked, and the rocks were split. The tombs were also opened and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. And they came out of the tombs after his resurrection, entered the holy city, and appeared to many.”
That makes Mark’s description of darkness covering the land seem pretty mild by comparison. If you were anywhere in the vicinity of Jerusalem on that day, it would have seemed like creation itself was coming undone. Imagine the shock on the part of the Jews in the temple when the veil separating the Holy Place from the inner sanctuary suddenly ripped in half from top to bottom. It would have been like a giant grabbed it and ripped it in two. Except, that curtain was woven to be incredibly thick and strong. I’ve heard stories that they would test the curtain’s strength by tying horses to each corner and sending them off in different directions. When it held, it was ready to protect the people from the presence of God. The fear on the part of those who witnessed the event would have been immense. Theologically, the implication was clear: God’s presence wasn’t going to be limited or hidden any longer.
Everyone would have experienced the earthquake. That wouldn’t have been so unusual in and of itself, but when combined with the darkness, the mood would have seemed very apocalyptic. And I honestly don’t have any idea what to make of the resurrection of the saints. I think the best summary of that moment came on the lips of the terrified centurion: “Truly this man was the Son of God!”
And in the middle of it all was Jesus, dying. His followers had largely abandoned Him (except the women who showed a great deal more courage than any of the men did). His accusers were mocking Him. The soldiers were doing their job with satisfaction. Even the other men being crucified were ridiculing Him (until one of them got his head on straight and repented of it). Where was God the Father during all of this? The utter loneliness of His position had to be nearly suffocating. After spending His whole life sharing an intimacy with the Father that was rich and deep and utterly satisfying, to be so completely cut off from Him as the sin of the world came to rest on His shoulders was worse than all the physical pain He had endured and was suffering in that moment. There’s a reason He cried out with a loud voice to complain of God’s abandonment of Him. God had left Him. He was alone.
No matter how deep your sense of lostness has felt in a tragic or hard moment, Jesus understands. He’s been there. He’s cried out to God with the same cry that was on your lips: God where are you? Aren’t you supposed to be fixing this? Why have you hung me out to dry? When are you going to make this better? Can you make this better? He was sorely tempted to turn from God in that moment and find His own way forward just as you were…just perhaps as you have. Jesus understands.
But if you would find commonality with Jesus in your suffering, would you look just a little bit deeper with me at His cry for help? Those words are a quote. They are a quote from Psalm 22:1. That may not seem like such a big deal, but trust me: it is. An ancient rabbinic tradition was to make reference to a passage of Scripture by citing only its first verse. It was a time saver. In a culture where many people had the whole of the Scriptures memorized and where even when that hadn’t happened, there was a general familiarity with the Scriptures, a teacher could cite the first verse and his audience understood that he was referring to the whole passage. I believe there is a good case to be made that is exactly what Jesus was doing here.
Go right now and read Psalm 22. No, seriously, go and do it. I’ll wait. Have you done it? I’ll keep waiting. It won’t take you long.
Now, did you see how David started that lament? It’s just like Jesus cried from the cross. “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” Did you see what came next? “Why are you so far from my deliverance and from my words of groaning? My God, I cry by day, but you do not answer, by night, yet I have no rest.” These are the words of someone who is feeling separated from God and God doesn’t seem to care. Have you been there? It’s not like God is unconcerned with His people generally, though. “Our ancestors trusted in you; they trusted, and you rescued them. They cried to you and were set free; they trusted in you and were not disgraced.” That’s not a review of history, it’s an indictment. No, this isn’t a problem with God’s character generally; it is far more personal than that. “But I am a worm and not a man, scorned by mankind and despised by people. Everyone who sees me mocks me; they sneer and shake their heads: ‘He relies on the Lord; let him save him; let the Lord rescue him, since he takes pleasure in him.'” Clearly, God has just abandoned me, David complained. He doesn’t even consider me a person worthy of His time and attention any longer. All my trust in Him in the past is being used against me like an indictment. This is simply insult being added to injury.
Have you been there? Jesus has.
But again, by referring to that first verse, Jesus was making reference to the whole psalm. Did you read the rest of it? David included a remarkably specific description of the physical sufferings Jesus would have endured on the cross. Pretty wild coming about 1,000 years before it happened. He even made mentioned of the soldiers casting lots for His clothes.
The real prize here, though, is seeing where the psalm ends. If my theory is correct, Jesus would have had this in mind, and that makes all the difference. Look at the psalm again and jump down to v. 25: “I will give praise in the great assembly because of you; I will fulfill my vows before those who fear you. The humble will eat and be satisfied; those who seek the Lord will praise him. May your hearts live forever!” That’s quite a proclamation of praise from one who had previously felt so abandoned. But that’s not the end of it. Look at what comes next: “All the ends of the earth will remember and turn to the Lord. All the families of the nations will bow down before you, for kingship belongs to the Lord; he rules the nations. All who prosper on earth will eat and bow down; all those who go down to the dust will kneel before him – even the one who cannot preserve his life. Their descendants will serve him; the next generation will be told about the Lord. They will come and declare his righteousness; to a people yet to be born they will declare what he has done.”
What is this? How does one start with feelings of such utter abandonment by God and yet finish by proclaiming with such confidence the advance of God’s kingdom into the next generation? Because this is someone who understands God’s character. God does not abandon those who serve Him. Period. He may allow them to face hard times; even impossible-seeming times; but He does not leave them forever. His goodness will win the day. His righteousness will claim victory in the end. Even if things seem terrible now, “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is going to be revealed to us.”
My friend, things may seem hard now, even terribly so, but they will not be that way forever. And if you would be willing to follow the example of Jesus, who, though completely abandoned and alone on the cross nevertheless trusted in God’s character of justice and righteousness to win the day, you will experience that victory in your own life as well. If you will turn to Him in your distress, you will find that you are not alone at all. He is with you just as He will always be. You may be in the midst of your own dark night of the soul, but keep crying out for Him. He will come and restore you to wholeness. Your joy will be restored and made perfect. Life will define your narrative. The end is not yet. Victory will come and it will be sweet. Follow Him and live.