“I will never leave you nor forsake you.”
That’s a promise. And while I do believe God keeps promises, feeling forsaken is something we all experience. Just check the latest movie marquee: from Gravity to All is Lost, we’re all just trying to find solid ground.
From infancy on, we are imperfectly loved. Someone we count on lets us down. We feel lost. Left. Forsaken. Then, as we grow up and into our lives with God, many of us struggle to get into the lifeboat of God’s presence. We’re not all spiritual superstars. For many of us, feeling forsaken seems part of the human condition. We’re not sure there is a balm in Gilead, or anywhere else, for that matter.
And you know what? This isn’t news. This forsakenness stuff goes way back.
Take Moses and the Israelites, for instance. In our reading today, Moses is trying to tell the Israelites he’s at the end of his rope. Let me translate. He says, “I can’t get around like I used to … my body is failing me. So, even though I’d like to keep leading you, I can’t. And, I know you’ve been having your relationship with God through me, so you need to know, even though I am not going to be with you anymore, God is still with you. God goes with you. God will not fail you or forsake you.”
Well. That’s a powerful promise. Whatever is rocking our world, God goes with us. God will not fail us nor forsake us.
I can be done right there. Right? We’re good?
No. We’re not. For just about as many years as we’ve been living with that promise, we’ve been feeling forsaken. Just look at our call to worship. Psalm 22 was written thousands of years ago. “My God, why have you forsaken me?”
Have you ever felt that? Did the call to worship feel like a prayer you could have prayed? It felt real for me.
It felt real for Jesus, too. Let me share one more scripture with you today. This is from Mark, chapter 15, verses 33-38
33 When it was noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. 34 At three o’clock Jesus cried out with a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” 35 When some of the bystanders heard it, they said, “Listen, he is calling for Elijah.” 36 And someone ran, filled a sponge with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink, saying, “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to take him down.” 37 Then Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last. 38 And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom.
Forsaken. Even Jesus has this experience. As he is dying, there is no descending dove. No voice from heaven. Silence.
Into that silence, Jesus cries out one last time …
And a Roman centurion says what God does not: “Truly, this man was God’s son!”
Silence. Did you ever cry to God, and God did not answer? The psalmist … Jesus … you … me … we have all groaned in that silence.
So has the author of the letter to the Hebrews … and so she reassures her people once more of God’s promise: “I will never leave you nor forsake you.”
God promises. And yet … we feel forsaken.
I remember the woman I sat with after her surgery; her breast cancer had traveled into her lymph nodes. She was stunned. “We’ve been praying. We prayed that the lump would be benign. It wasn’t. We prayed that the cancer would be contained in my breast. It wasn’t. I don’t understand. I’ve been faithful all my life. Why has God forsaken me?”
I remember another woman, awake in the middle of the night before her surgery. “I lost my baby six months ago, and I’ve been sick ever since. There’s something wrong in my stomach and intestines and I keep getting sick. I don’t understand why this has gone on so long. Why won’t God let me heal? Am I not supposed to get well, am I not supposed to get pregnant again? I feel forsaken.”
I’m thinking of a family in another state … well, what’s left of the family. A man and a woman … their two children run over and killed in a terrible accident. We know those parents will never be the same; we want to turn away from their affliction. Then there is the young driver of the car in the accident. Because of her immigration status, she faces not only imprisonment but deportation, which for her would mean lifelong exile to a country she left as a child. All her family is here. She would be alone, and never able to return home. One family, broken forever … another facing the fracture of exile.
Where is God in all of this? That’s one question we can ask. Here’s another:
Where are we? Where are the people? Let’s take a closer look.
If we read on into Psalm 22, we find the psalmist suffering at the hands of other people, heaped up with scorn, derision, and gloating. The people have forsaken him … but what about God?
In verse 24, the psalmist answers the question:
“For [God] did not despise or abhor the affliction of the afflicted; [God] did not hide [God’s] face from me, but heard when I cried to [God.]
That’s where God is … with the forsaken ones. If we want to find God, that’s where we need to look.
What about in Mark’s story? Where is God? And where are we, the people?
In Mark’s telling, Jesus is crucified by a corrupt empire colluding with fearful religious leaders. Not by God.
But am I alone in wondering what happened in Jesus as he died into God’s silence? I do wonder … this is wrapped up in the mystery of God, and how he was present with and in Jesus … a mystery we call the trinity. The fact is, we can’t really know what was happening with God and Jesus and the Holy Spirit in those moments.
But this is still the God of Psalm 22. And so here is what I believe.
God did not despise Jesus. God did not hide God’s face from Jesus. God did not turn from Jesus’s suffering. God heard Jesus when he cried out.
That was God’s response. To not forsake. That, and rolling away the stone to break the bond of death.
What is our response?
When we face another’s forsakenness, do we see God in their faces?
When we feel forsaken ourselves, do we know God goes with us?
Maybe if we had this experience, of knowing ourselves accompanied by God in whatever we face, it would help us to stand with another, in those moments no one can withstand. Cancer. Loss. Death. Injustice. Exile.
This is why the ending of Mark is so precious to me.
40 There were also women looking on from a distance; among them were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salome. 41 These used to follow him and provided for him when he was in Galilee; and there were many other women who had come up with him to Jerusalem.
Many other women … oh, women … you are my heroes. The empire kept you from holding Jesus in your arms as he died, and I know this broke your hearts, but you stood near, and you did not despise Jesus. You did not hide your faces from him. You did not turn away from his affliction out of fear it would become yours. You heard his last cry.
And because of you, Jesus was not alone, and not forsaken.
That’s good news. We humans don’t only contribute to forsakenness. We the people can be there for one another, and in being with one another, we are being with God. We are the balm in Gilead.
The letter to the Hebrews reminds us of this, too: “Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured.”
We can’t just give charity. We can’t just advocate for prison reform. We have to love the ones suffering so much their suffering is our suffering. In that connection, we all find the ground of our Being.
* * *
These words are important to answering the question we began with. Why, when God promises never to leave us nor forsake us, why do we feel forsaken?
Because we are human. Because we have hearts and bodies of flesh. Because we can be in such pain and distress that we lose sight of words and promises. The God of our words slips away from us … when we are in pain beyond words.
That’s when we need each other. When we have fallen into forsakenness, we need someone to remind us that God goes with us through it all. Whatever it is – suffering or joy – we need the presence of another who will be God-with-us, in the flesh.
If I can look up, out of my pain, and join you in yours, then neither of us are alone anymore. Wherever two or more are gathered, Christ is there.
Forsakenness is a calling. It draws us to each other … so we can join the silence, with God, of those grieving unimaginable loss.
So we can join the work, with God, of restoring the world, that none will be lost to poverty, violence, hunger, prison, exile.
We are called to God’s side, among the forsaken, to wrap our love around them, so that they will know and feel it is not God, forsaken …
It is God, loving, always and forever, to the end of the age. Amen.