“… about the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, ‘Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?’ that is, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ ”
It is in the cross atop Golgotha that we see the depth of our sin. Without the cross, we may be inclined to think that our problem lies in not living up to our true potential, in not trying harder, or in not living up to the how we instinctively feel the world ought to be. Our actions, to be sure, often put us at odds with ourselves, each other, and the world; and the older you get, the more there is to live down, or even to live up to. Now, perhaps more seriously, we see our predicament in living at odds with God’s commandments. To be sure, I have not murdered anyone, but have I really “helped and supported my neighbor in every physical need” (as Luther unpacks the commandment)? I can definitely try harder next time—but, realistically, there are only 24 hours in a day…
Yet, for all the truth of how I persistently fall short, the cross atop Golgotha forces me to confront myself more deeply than all my debilitating deficiencies. The problem doesn’t lie only in the imperfection of my actions, in their oh-so-human limitedness, not even in the fact that my heart is usually not in them the way it should be. The problem doesn’t lie even in my not measuring up to God’s law. That’s not what, in the end, took Jesus to the cross.
What took Jesus to the cross was me, me as such, me myself. What took Jesus to the cross was not the failure of my actions—what I have done and what I have left undone—but something deeper and more pervasive: my failure to honor God with my whole being. That is, my failure to surrender my very self to God and my evasiveness to receive myself from God. Or, to put it differently still, my unwillingness to trust God with my own self: to let go of my self, to die to myself, and to live from fellowship with God alone, for which He has created me in the first place.
In other words, what took Jesus to Golgotha was not my imperfections, but my clinging to myself. This unwillingness to let go is ultimately my guilt because all this posturing happens in face of God’s unconditional goodness to me. Insofar as I will not trust God with myself, I—none other than his beloved creature created to enjoy Him unreservedly—declare God to be less than trustworthy. I have, in fact, chosen myself apart from God, chosen to have fellowship with myself first and foremost. It was my enmity against God, this godlessness of mine, that took Jesus to the cross.
This godlessness I have never had any right or reason to persist in. In His entire history with His human creatures, God has shown Himself to be God for us, for His creation and His human creatures. He has shown Himself as the One who did not have to and yet has chosen fellowship with us, who one covenant after another has remained faithful to His people, His servants, His disciples, His church.
Where God has remained faithful, we have—at best—turned our faith into a currency with which we have sought to secure favors from him, as if our faith justified us to demand things from God, and as if He needed our help because He didn’t know any better. In a similar fashion, we have turned God’s law into a means of achieving standing before God, as well as a club to bludgeon each other with. This is how serious our condition is. In our hands, even faith becomes an opportunity for not trusting that God is really good, not taking Him at His word, but for asserting ourselves. In our hands, even God’s law becomes a temptation to bargain with God, as if His goodness were in doubt and had better be won. Our condition is godlessness, the perpetual questioning of the goodness and trustworthiness of God, persistently casting a shadow on His promise and His word.
It is this godlessness, our godlessness that took Jesus to the cross. It brought Him among sinners ready to sentence a righteous man to death, ostensibly for the sake of life and survival and prosperity, which they had to assure themselves. As the High Priest put it, “It is better that one man die for the people than for the people to perish” (John 11:50 and 18:14). In face of such preposterous perversion of justice, Jesus had every right to invoke angelic hosts, to justify himself, to take things into his own hands. Except then, he would do the same thing as the godless world around him, as the sinners, the humans into whose hands he has been delivered (Matthew 17:22). He would have doubted the promise of God the Father, His goodness, His presence and help. Even more so, then He wouldn’t be the One who took their godlessness upon Himself, who stood in their place, delivered over to them, so that they wouldn’t have to be delivered over to themselves.
The naked cross atop Golgotha. Jesus’ lifeless body laid in the grave. Darkness drawing nigh. And then the silence of the day to come, the silence of Holy Saturday. All of those seem to confirm that God didn’t come through for Jesus, that His detractors were right: God wasn’t good, and certainly, as such, was no good; you’d better take care of yourself. Little did they know how good God had been to them. For it was to Jesus, in their place, that God the Father said, “As you want it, so be it.” It was Jesus, who suffered their fate. He suffered the forsakenness which they had already chosen and desired. Jesus suffered the God-less-ness of the godless, so that the godless could be spared its consequences. They met their just deserts—but only in Jesus.
The silence of Holy Saturday shows how serious godlessness is, our godlessness. But already in this silence—the holy silence—godlessness is deprived of its reason to be, of any final word it might want to have on the matter of God. It is God whose mouth is about to speak: “Let there be life… let there be light.” God’s goodness is about to pour forth yet again, like waters bringing the desert to life.
By dying for the godless, for us, Jesus reiterates the goodness of God, God’s astounding grace and mercy. For the goodness of God is shown in the fact that He will take even our lying godlessness upon Himself to render void its claim, to deprive it of any further ability to lie. He will pursue us not just when we have strayed, but also when, with our lack of faith, we persistently put His goodness in doubt. God doesn’t give up.
It is in the cross atop Golgotha that we see the depth of our sin. And there, even more so, we see its true cure. “Come, follow me,” says the Lord.