By Pastor Brian
As in all Star Wars movies, there’s a point in The Force Awakens when things aren’t looking good—when you begin to wonder if maybe this is the one time that the good guys aren’t going to win. When we came to that point while watching the movie as a family, my then 8 year-old son said, “I know there’s always a happy ending but I’m not sure how this is going to end.” I’ve thought about his words a lot this week.
We’re living in the middle of a week that the US Surgeon General predicted would be the “hardest and saddest” of “most Americans’ lives.” He said it would be “our Pearl Harbor moment, our 9/11 moment.” And while the expected number of lives lost may be less than initially predicted, the actual number of deaths is still staggering. Many people continue to lose their jobs. Record numbers of Americans are filing for unemployment. The cumulative effect of social distancing, disrupted lives, and the uncertainty as to when this will end is taking its toll. I’m sad, and I’m tired. And my guess is you’re feeling that way too.
It’s also Holy Week—the week when Christians around the world mark the final events of Jesus’ life from his Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday to his resurrection from the dead on Easter Sunday one week later. On the surface, one might think it unfortunate that Holy Week would fall in the middle of such widespread sorrow and suffering. Shouldn’t Holy Week be a week of joy and celebration? The answer is yes and no. Yes, in that Holy Week culminates in the most joyful day of the year in the celebration of Jesus’ resurrection; no, in that the events of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday are some of the most sorrowful in the Bible. And in that respect, it’s both fitting and even helpful to find ourselves celebrating Holy Week under these circumstances. Why? Because Holy Week reminds us that the God of the Bible is a God who knows what it is to suffer. And nowhere is that more evident in the entire Christian year than on Good Friday—the day when we reflect upon the Crucifixion of Jesus Christ. On Good Friday, we come face-to-face with the God who bears our griefs and carries our sorrows.
Jesus’ Nearness in Our Suffering
One of the unique features of Christianity among all world religions is that the God of the Bible knows what it is to suffer. In the Incarnation, Jesus enters our broken world to bear the judgment and suffering due for the sins of his people. Jesus is the long hoped-for Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53—the one who “was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief” (Isa 53:3). Think about that for a moment. Jesus felt grief. He tasted sadness. He wept over the death of his friend (Jn 11:35). He knows what it’s like for his own soul to be “sorrowful, even to death” (Mt 26:38). Jesus has first-hand experience with suffering. He understands it from the inside. Are you broken-hearted, anxious, fatigued? Are you worn out, disoriented, downtrodden? Are you scared, sad, and overwhelmed with grief? Your God knows what it’s like. He’s felt that way too.
Jesus’ experience of suffering gives new meaning to passages like Psalm 34:18 where God is said to be “near to the brokenhearted” or Psalm 46:1 where God is described as one who’s a “very present help in trouble.” Jesus is near to you in your pain not as an indifferent observer, but as one who has endured it. He’s a present help, because he’s a past sufferer.
But what’s just as important is how Jesus engaged his suffering. He did so by crying out to his Father with words of lament. Jemar Tisby describes lament as “anguish out loud.” Lament gives voice to the ache, the despair, the uncertainty that we feel. But rather than merely giving voice to those sorrows—as important as that is—biblical lament directs those words of sorrow towards God himself. Jesus did this on the eve of Good Friday in the Garden of Gethsemane as he pleaded with his Father to let this cup pass from him (Mt 26:39, 42). He did it on the Cross as he cried out with the words of Psalm 22, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” And this is what we must do as well. Take time on this Good Friday to pour your heart out to the Lord. Hold nothing back. Pray your pain. Ask your questions. Voice your complaints. Weep and mourn in the presence of the one who is near.
While lament gives voice to our feelings of hopelessness, it’s also a prayer of extraordinary hopefulness, because lament affirms the goodness and love of God in the midst of our sorrow. In Psalm 13, David asks questions of the Lord that might make us uncomfortable: “How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I take counsel in my soul and have sorrow in my heart all the day?” But after pouring out his questions and complaints, he concludes with these words: “But I have trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation. I will sing to the LORD, because he has dealt bountifully with me.” So what happened? How did he get from these desperate questions of God’s seeming absence to this statement of faith? Is he trying to convince himself that things aren’t really that bad? Is it just easier to pretend that he’s not in anguish? No. David can affirm his trust in the Lord, because he knows who his God is. He’s experienced the steadfast, loyal, covenantal love of the Lord—the love that Sally Lloyd-Jones describes as the “Never Stopping, Never Giving Up, Unbreaking, Always and Forever Love” of God. And that changes everything. This is where we see a second aspect of Jesus’ suffering on Good Friday.
Jesus’ Abandonment in His suffering
While Jesus’ suffering enables him to sympathize with us in our suffering, there is also something unique and unrepeatable about his suffering. Jesus suffered for us on the Cross. Isaiah says, “He was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities” (Isa 53:5). He has “borne our griefs and carried our sorrows” (Isa 53:4). And it’s here that we find the greatest hope that God not only hears our cries of lament but that He will ultimately do something about it.
How so? Because there was a time when the Father didn’t respond to the cries of His Son. When Jesus cried, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”, he heard no response. Again, Sally Lloyd-Jones: “And for the first time—and the last—when he spoke, nothing happened. Just a horrible, endless, silence. God didn’t answer.” Why not? Because in that moment, “the Father turned his face away.” Jesus hung on the Cross alone and forsaken while he bore the sins of his people. And he experienced that abandonment in his suffering, so that you’d never have to in your suffering.
Holy Week reminds us that we have a God who can sit with us in our pain and sorrow; a God who knows our agony and sadness. But it also reminds us that He’s a God who, three days later, raised His Son from the dead. So while we don’t know when this pandemic will end; we don’t know the final number of lives that will be lost; we don’t know the full scope of the suffering we’ll endure; we do know that the God of Good Friday is with us. We do know that He loves us. And we do know that because of Jesus’ death and resurrection on our behalf, He will one day make all things new.
This is the God of Good Friday.