Transcribed from the audio.
Be not far from me for trouble is near and there is none to help. Amen.
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Those first nine words of the twenty-second Psalm are painfully familiar; and as such, they pierce our hearts and sear our souls. They’re familiar to us because in the Gospels of Matthew and Mark they’re recorded as the last words that Jesus spoke from the cross. So it seems appropriate today, as we remember the crucifixion, that we spend a few minutes together reflecting on those hard words and what they may have to say to us today.
The twenty-second Psalm is a psalm of lament. And roughly one third of the psalms are lament psalms underscoring their significance and rightful place in the fabric of our human lives and experience. Some of them are individual psalms of lament, like the twenty-second Psalm; some are communal. But there’s a certain pattern that follows these lament psalms. They almost always begin with a short emotion-packed address to God. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Psalms scholar Denise Dombkowski Hopkins calls that initial address a mini-statement of faith. In the twenty-second Psalm the psalmist cries out to “my God”—not to some existential being out there—but the One to whom the psalmist has a relationship, a lifetime of experience; crying out to the One who is the source of healing, the One who can bring deliverance from whatever the current distress or affliction may be. And in the psalms, the most frequently asked question is, “why?” The Hebrew word is lama. And the psalmist addressed it to “my God”—not looking for information in a response from God to explain away the pain, but rather lifting it up to the One who is the source of healing and who can bring deliverance.
And in the twenty-second Psalm, it follows a familiar lament pattern. The psalmist, after the address to God, names the affliction. “I cry by daytime but you do not answer. By night, as well, but I have no rest.” And then the psalmist shifts to an expression and confession of trust in God. “Yet you are the Holy One. Our forebears trusted in you and you delivered them”—the psalmist recalling the experience of a steadfast and faithful God who hears our cries. And the psalmist shifts again to the affliction: “But as for me, I am a worm and no man, scorned, afflicted. Yet you are he who took me from the womb and placed me in safety upon my mother’s breast. I have been entrusted to you since my birth”—a confession of trust and confidence in the God who hears our cries and is a source of healing.
James May, a psalms scholar, notes that in Jesus’ day it was a tradition that if one began speaking a particular passage, that, in fact, they were invoking the entire passage as they did so. So if one were beginning Psalm 22, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” that person was invoking the entirety of the psalm, including the expression and confession of trust in God, our God. Jesus, in lifting up the beginning of Psalm 22, knew that psalm well and in so lifting up that cry to our God, Jesus offers us a model for how we, too, in those times of affliction and estrangement can cry out to God in hope and confidence in the One who is the source of healing and restoration.
In just a little while you’ll be given the opportunity to go to the cross. I invite you in that time to model Jesus, to lift up whatever seeks to separate you from God, one another; whatever binds you, whatever enslaves you, whatever imprisons you—take it to the foot of the cross to the One who is the source of our healing, the One who can and does deliver us from our afflictions. Sometimes that deliverance may look a little bit different from how we envisioned it. For some of us it may mean today asking for forgiveness or sometimes harder yet, receiving forgiveness.
In his book Preaching from Memory to Hope, Thomas Long tells the story of a minister friend of his who one evening was going out to dinner with his wife for a wedding anniversary dinner. And as they were leaving the church and going into the parking lot of the church, they encountered a couple in crisis. An elderly woman was bending over her husband who was prostrate on the ground and clutching his chest and obviously having a heart attack. And the minister’s wife ran back into the church to call for an ambulance and call for help. And the minister ran to the couple and the man looked up at the minister and he said, “Charlie, forgive me; Charlie forgive me.” And the minister said “Don’t worry, help’s on the way; we’ve called for help; it’s coming.” But he insisted and he kept saying, “Charlie, forgive me.” And the minister looked at him and said, “I’m sorry, I’m not Charlie; my name is Sam. But help is coming.” And then the man clutched his chest harder and mustered all the strength he had and looked at him one last time and said, “Charlie, forgive me.” And the minister followed the leading of the Lord, knowing that this man was not going to make it. And he looked at him and he said, “I forgive you; I forgive you.” And those were the last words the man heard. “I forgive you.” You see what Sam didn’t know was Charlie was this man’s son and they’d had a terrible argument years before. And the father had disowned his son and they had not spoken since. But his dying wish was for forgiveness and he cried out.
“I forgive you.” Some time Archbishop of Canterbury William Temple wrote that “The cross is the glory of God because self-sacrifice is the expression of love. This is how we know, and are certain of how much Jesus loves us.”
“Be not far away my God, our God; for trouble is near and there is none to help.”