The Cry of Dereliction
Preached by Benjamin Vrbicek
This is our fourth week in our Easter sermon series. Each week during the seven weeks leading up to Easter, we’re looking at one of seven last sayings of Jesus spoken from the cross.
Our fourth saying comes from Matthew 27:46, but I’m going to begin reading in v. 45 and go all the way through v. 56 to capture the context. If you have a Bible, please follow along with me as I read Matthew 27:45–56 (page 945).
45 Now from the sixth hour there was darkness over all the land until the ninth hour. 46 And 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?” 47 And some of the bystanders, hearing it, said, “This man is calling Elijah.” 48 And one of them at once ran and took a sponge, filled it with sour wine, and put it on a reed and gave it to him to drink. 49 But the others said, “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to save him.” 50 And Jesus cried out again with a loud voice and yielded up his spirit.
51 And behold, the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. And the earth shook, and the rocks were split. 52 The tombs also were opened. And many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised, 53 and coming out of the tombs after his resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many. 54 When the centurion and those who were with him, keeping watch over Jesus, saw the earthquake and what took place, they were filled with awe and said, “Truly this was the Son of God!”
55 There were also many women there, looking on from a distance, who had followed Jesus from Galilee, ministering to him, 56 among whom were Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James and Joseph and the mother of the sons of Zebedee.
In a sermon during last year’s Easter season, I shared a story from my honeymoon. In that story I told how I managed to let my wife and I be led into a dark alley in a foreign country where it felt like death might have just been around the corner. People at church seemed to enjoy that story, so let me tell another tale from the honeymoon, which by the way was a honeymoon that had dozens of things go wrong on it, which means I could give you one story for each Easter season for a long time.
I’ll start with a picture, and it’s a beautiful picture. This is a picture of one of the Pitons, as they are called (not my wife and me pictured). It’s one of two mountains that come straight out of the ocean in the southern part of St. Lucia in the town of Soufrière. That picture is taken from a restaurant called The Mango Tree, which is not visible in the picture. When my wife and I found the mango tree for which the restaurant is named, there were mangos in such abundance that they hadn’t even been picked. They were laying on the ground. I remember my wife saying, “Benjamin, there’s like $200 in mangos on the ground!” It was awesome.
During one meal at the restaurant, as we sat there admiring the beauty of the mountain, I also remember commenting, “Do you think it ever gets old, you know, just looking at that? It’s so beautiful, so amazing.” And it was.
Later on our vacation, we met a man named Eddie who offered to be our guide up the mountain. Apparently I hadn’t learned my lesson from the guide who had lured us into a dark alley. But nonetheless, we took him up on the offer. We climbed that mountain in the picture.
The climb started out not all that difficult, just a little trail up a little mountain. Then, rather than going up at a slight incline and stepping over some rocks here and there, we began climbing a steep incline, and not stepping over rocks but rather climbing up huge boulders. At one point, after a lot of climbing, our guide told me he was taking a break and proceeded to smoke a certain kind of cigarette that would be illegal in America.
After this break, we continued on. That’s when it started to get interesting. At this point we are probably 90 percent up the mountain. And we are not bouldering anymore, but climbing on what felt like a cliff. And off to my right, a dark, violent storm appears to be blowing in off the ocean. The wind is whipping through my shirt.
The next step in our trip up the mountain was to climb up to a ledge and to do so meant using a tiny, fraying, weathered rope. My wife went up first. Then she looked down at me.
Now, two pieces of background information. First, about three weeks before this I injured my shoulder very badly, which I won’t go into, but suffice it to say my arm right was only 25 percent functional. Second, my father-in-law is a mountain of a man. At the end of the wedding reception only a few days before, he had pulled me aside and with a firm voice said, “She’s my only daughter; take care of her.”
Now near the top of the mountain, I was looking up at Brooke, one arm not working very well, the storm moving in off the ocean, a guide who seemed to be doing okay, clinging to a tiny rope on the side of a cliff, and the voice of my father-in-law in my head. On that beautiful mountain, I was terrified.
That’s when we turned around. We made it back fine. I say all that to say this: the same mountain that was awesome and beautiful was also dangerous and terrifying. I suppose, however, if I had become more familiar with the mountain and spent tons of time hiking it, perhaps over time, I might have lost respect for its beauty and danger.
The cross of Jesus Christ is like that Piton mountain. The saying from the cross we are preoccupied is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.” This saying is often referred to as “the cry of dereliction,” which is why I gave my sermon that title. Dereliction is the state of being abandoned, especially from one’s family, and most especially from a father. This is what Jesus is experiencing on the cross: abandonment and forsakenness from his Father.
One theologian put it like this: “In this cry of dereliction, the horror of the world’s sin and the cost of our salvation are revealed” (D.A. Carson, Matthew: Expositors Bible Commentary, 579). To the Christian, this saying of Jesus from the cross is both terrifying and beautiful.
But there is a problem, however. Our familiarity with the cross of Christ can cause us to forget both how terrible and how awesome it is. If familiarity with the gospel means we love the gospel and we cherish the gospel and we are in awe of the gospel, that’s good familiarity. But if familiarity with the gospel means we’ve lost our wonder and awe, that’s a bad thing. And we need to recover this sense of awe.
So, this morning I’d like to spend some time with exploring Mount Calvary, or Golgotha as it’s sometimes called. I want to show you a few things to help us recover our wonder at the amazing grace of God. To do so I have a short outline. My first point is, “The cross of Christ was bad, really bad.” The second point is, “The cross of Christ was good, really good.”
I won’t dwell long on each point because we have had a rich service already and we have a congregational meeting later. But let me start with the first point: The cross of Christ was bad, really bad.
1. The cross of Christ was bad, really bad
I’d like to show how bad it was in three ways. I’ll talk about the forsaken, then about the cataclysmic signs that took place, and then talk a bit about the Old Testament song of Psalm 22, which will make sense when we get there.
First, let’s dwell on the word “forsaken.” When you look at all of the gospel accounts, there are seven statements spoken from the cross. But this one is the only statement that Matthew includes in his account. At Ground Zero of our redemption, we see the Son of God crying out to his father about the forsakenness that he is experiencing.
(By the way, I don’t think the question “why” is so much because he doesn’t know. Oh, Jesus knew why he was being forsaken. It was planned before the foundation of the world, and in the gospels he has already spoken of this moment often. No, we see Jesus, in his humanity, putting for us into words what it feels like to be forsaken.)
And “forsaken” is such a harsh word, it’s it? We sometimes speak us it over the wilderness: “This godforsaken land,” we might say. But we are not talking about the wilderness. We’re talking about the only begotten son.
This forsakenness is made worse when we remember some other details from the rest of the gospels, and for that matter, the rest of the Bible. Consider, for example, Psalm 37:35,
I have been young, and now am old,
yet I have not seen the righteous forsaken
or his children begging for bread.
That’s true. God does take care of his children. When they were in slavery in Egypt, what does the Bible say? It says, God saw, and he heard (e.g., in Exodus 3:7 the Lord tells Moses, “I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters. I know their sufferings.”) And with a powerful hand and outstretched arm, God saved his children. They covered their doorposts with the blood of the Passover Lamb, and they were saved. But on this mountain the Son of God is forsaken? Why?
And consider John 11. This is the passage where Lazarus is raised from the dead. In it we read,
41 So they took away the stone [where Lazarus was buried]. And Jesus lifted up his eyes and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. 42 I knew that you always hear me, but I said this on account of the people standing around, that they may believe that you sent me.”
Do you see? In the midst of doing a miracle, Jesus has a little chat with his father, and in that chat, Jesus expresses his thanksgiving that his father always hears him. But now, he’s forsaken; he’s abandoned. Silence.
And consider the baptism of Jesus, in which we read,
And when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; and behold, a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:16–17).
The heavens are smiling, and a voice shouts, “Ahh, that’s my boy.”
And also consider what we call the transfiguration, the moment when Jesus showed a few of his disciples just a small glimpse of his glory. When Jesus did this, God the Father burst out,
“This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him” (Matthew 17:5).
Note that phrase: listen to him. The Father tells others to listen to his son, but now—on the cross—the Son is forsaken.
This is a terrifying thing. Sometimes we think that really . . . well . . . God is just going to overlook sin when we stand before him. Sin is no big deal. It’s just a little sin. No, look at the cross, friends. When the Son of God became sin for us (2 Cor 5:21), God the Father forsook is own son.
To think about how terrifying all this is, consider let’s also talk about the cataclysmic signs that accompany the cross of Christ. The signs that take place remind us of how bad the cross of Christ is. When the Son of God dies the earth shakes. At noon, when the sun should shine brightest, there is darkness. This would have told bystanders that something unusual and ominous was happening. If you were in Manhattan on the morning of September 11, 2001 and you saw a low flying plane, you’d have started to wonder what was going on because something wasn’t right. Here, people wonder the same thing. In fact, of the soldier presiding over the crucifixion, we read this:
When the centurion and those who were with him, keeping watch over Jesus, saw the earthquake and what took place, they were filled with awe and said, “Truly this was the Son of God!” (v. 54).
The centurion was a man trained to kill people. One pastor has said, a centurion was such a tough dude that he’s the kind of guy that mixed martial arts fighters get nervous around (Mark Driscoll in sermon on Luke 23). And Matthew records that this terrifying man was also “terrified” (NIV). It’s like he was looking over a cliff face and seeing a giant storm rolling in off the ocean and wondering if he’s gonna make it out of this okay.
And the temple curtain is torn. There is something beautiful about this, of course, which I’ll mention in a moment, but now just consider the heaviness of this. The place where God dwelt for a thousand years, the place that countless pilgrims traveled to meet with God, the place where only one man could enter (and then only once a year and only after great ritual and purity and sacrifice), this place of God’s most holy dwelling was ruptured. It broke. That’s heavy.
Finally, to consider how bad the cross of Christ is—really bad—let me talk about Psalm 22. Earlier in the worship service, vv. 1–8 were read, but let me read a few of these again and a few others.
1 My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning?
2 O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer,
and by night, but I find no rest.
7 All who see me mock me;
they make mouths at me;
they wag their heads;
8 “He trusts in the Lord; let him deliver him;
let him rescue him, for he delights in him!”
14 I am poured out like water,
and all my bones are out of joint;
my heart is like wax;
it is melted within my breast;
15 my strength is dried up like a potsherd,
and my tongue sticks to my jaws;
you lay me in the dust of death.
16 For dogs encompass me;
a company of evildoers encircles me;
they have pierced my hands and feet—
17 I can count all my bones
— they stare and gloat over me;
18 they divide my garments among them,
and for my clothing they cast lots.
Church, the cross of Christ was bad, really bad. But it wasn’t only bad.
2. The cross of Christ was good, really good
For as terrifying as the cross of Christ is, to the Christian, it is even more beautiful. Consider again the word “forsaken.” This is terrifying, but if the Son of God was forsaken, that means there is no forsakenness left for you! If God the Father crushed God the Son, then the payment for sins was made. In another gospel account Jesus says, “It’s finished” (John 19:30) “This is amazing grace / This is unfailing love / That [Jesus] would take [our] place / That [Jesus] would bear [our] cross . . . [Now, we] sing for / All that You’ve done for [us]” (Phil Wickham, This is Amazing Grace). Jesus made the cry of dereliction so we would never have to. He was forsaken so we could be forgiven.
And consider the cataclysmic signs. Yes, the Temple curtain was torn in two and that’s a heavy reality, but . . . it was torn in two, and that’s amazing! It was torn from top to bottom, meaning it was not man who forced his way in, but God who came out! It was God who came out to expand the kingdom of his love, to expand his gospel grace to people from every tribe and every language and every nation. Presumably this centurion was a Roman pagan, but he gets it. When all the religious onlookers scoff at the Son of God, this Gentile gets it. He sees beauty on the mountain of Calvary.
And this amazing nature of the cross is also reflected in Psalm 22. I’m not sure if you know this but Psalm 22 is a fascinating Psalm for many reasons but at least two main reasons. The first reason Psalm 22 is fascinating is because of the way it dramatically describes the suffering of a righteous man and in so many specific details describes the things that took place in the death of Jesus, the ultimate righteous sufferer. That’s fascinating. But Psalm 22 is also fascinating because of the way the Psalm ends. The first 21 verses all about suffering are followed by 11 mysterious verses all about victory and hope and the advancement of a kingdom and someone who had accomplished something great. In fact, scholars who study this Psalm have always seen this peculiar aspect of the Psalm, that the Psalm begins in despair and ends in hope, although they haven’t always known how to explain it. Why would a funeral song ever end in triumphant celebration? Look at a few of the verses.
25 From you [God] comes my praise in the great congregation; [that is, the praise of the one who suffers] . . .
26 The afflicted shall eat and be satisfied . . .
27 All the ends of the earth shall remember
and turn to the Lord,
and all the families of the nations
shall worship before you.
28 For kingship belongs to the Lord,
and he rules over the nations.
29 All the prosperous of the earth eat and worship;
before him shall bow all who go down to the dust,
even the one who could not keep himself alive.
30 Posterity shall serve him;
it shall be told of the Lord to the coming generation;
31 they shall come and proclaim his righteousness to a people yet unborn,
that he has done it.
Wait—what? Where does this hope come from? How is this terrible situation changed? And what about this question: When the last verse of the Psalm reads, “they shall come and proclaim his righteousness to a people yet unborn, that he has done it,” what is “it”? What did a righteous sufferer accomplish that leads to a triumphant celebration?
For 1,000 years this was mysterious. But in the gospel, we see that “it” is the work of Christ on the cross. It was really, really bad, but it was really, really good.
Let me offer two concluding remarks. First, for those of you who might doubt whether or not God loves you, consider the cross. If you wonder if you might one day be forsaken, if you have put your faith in Jesus, the cross shows us that there is no punishment left for you. If you are experiencing troubles and hardships in your life, it might mean many different things, but the one thing it can’t mean is that God is forsaking you (allusion to a Timothy Keller comment in King’s Cross, 202). Christian, lift up your head! You are, and never will be, forsaken.
Second, let’s talk for a moment about the centurion. We don’t know what became of this centurion, but I’d like to tell you what I’d like to think happened. I’d like to think in just a few days, this centurion learned of the resurrection of Jesus. How could he not have learned about it? The rumors of it would have rippled through the Roman military. And I’d like to think that his life was changed, and his family—if he had family—they were changed. I’d like to think that this man who was outside of the Jewish fold, who didn’t have access to God, now had it—free and undeserved. The Temple curtain was torn in two, and he was ushered into the family of God. And I’d like to think that he went around telling people all of his life: “If there is hope for me—I mean, I killed Jesus!—then there is hope for you.”
In truth, I’m less concerned about this centurion and more concerned about you. If familiarity with the gospel means you love the gospel and you cherish the gospel and you are in awe of the gospel, that’s good familiarity. But if familiar with the gospel means we’ve lost our wonder and awe, that’s a bad thing. Let’s close in one more song, asking God to give a fresh view of how amazing grace is.