Cross Words: God’s Light In Dark Times
In the Cathedral at Dijon, France at the foot of the pulpit, there is the statue of an angel. In one hand the angel has a pen; in the other hand a tablet. The face of the angel is lifted up toward the pulpit. It is quite obvious that the angel is writing down what is preached from that pulpit. Well, I begin today by saying that I hope no angel is taking notes on what I now preach from this pulpit, because the word from the cross we look at today is an incredibly deep and profound word. Jesus cried from the cross, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me”? Frankly, I am not sure that I am worthy of approaching it, and yet reliant upon the grace and power of the Holy Spirit, today, at least, I must try.
It is worth remembering, as we approach this text, that Jesus was crucified at what was then called “the third hour.” That was nine o’clock in the morning. You see, the way they calculated time in those days, the first hour of the day was six o’clock in the morning. The third hour, obviously then, was nine o’clock in the morning. The sixth hour was high noon. The ninth hour was three o’clock in the afternoon. All of those times play an important part in what happened on Calvary, for the Bible tells us that Jesus was crucified at the third hour—nine o’clock in the morning—and the first three words that Jesus spoke from the cross, he spoke during that first hour. Then for five, long, hideously painful hours, Jesus was silent. The Gospels tell us that at the sixth hour, high noon—Jesus had been on the cross for three hours at that point—at the sixth hour suddenly a deep, black, inky, impenetrable darkness descended over the whole scene and remained until Jesus breathed His last, three hours later. The Bible tells us that it was at the ninth hour—at three o’clock in the afternoon—that Jesus spoke for the first time in five hours. He said, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me”? The words were spoken out of the darkness but while the words were spoken in darkness, the words actually speak of light -God’s light in the dark times of life.
Consider, for example, how God’s light shines in the darkness of suffering.
The moment on the cross which we encounter today is that moment when both the physical and spiritual suffering of Jesus were at their worst. In that awful moment, God chose to surround the scene with darkness. It was, I think, a lovely thing for God to do—to make sure that no one would be able to go home from Calvary that day and say, “I saw it all.”
Now there are arguments about how God managed to accomplish this. I will tell you that I am simplistic enough in my faith to believe that God can jolly well do anything that God wants to do! However, for those who are not so simplistic we ought to take a look at the various theories. Some say it was an eclipse of the sun, but that is impossible. The date of the Passover Festival, which is when the crucifixion took place—that date was set by the phases of the moon and the phase of the moon at the time of the Passover was exactly the opposite of that which is required for an eclipse. Some suggest that the deep darkness at noon was caused by what is called a “scirocco.” That is the name given to a terrifyingly strong wind which occasionally blows up out of the southeast, picks up the dust from the Judean desert, and races in upon Jerusalem with alarming swiftness. Sciroccos occur most commonly in the spring, and the dust in the wind can be so thick that it literally blocks out the light of the sun plunging Jerusalem into an ominous and forbidding darkness at midday. Perhaps that is what happened the day Christ was crucified. But the how of it is not really very important. What is important is this: at the moment when God’s Son was paying the greatest price, God covered the scene with the shadow of His wings. God was there in the darkness. There is a wonderful painting which hangs in the National Gallery in Edinburgh, Scotland. Christ is portrayed on the cross in dense darkness, and at first, that is all one sees, but as one peers into the dark, swirling clouds in the background, gradually the eye begins to pick out another form, God’s form; other hands, God’s hands supporting Christ; another face, God’s face more full of agony even than that of His Son. I believe that painting is a depiction of the way it was in that deep darkness at noonday—a loving Father blessing with kindness His suffering Son. And as God came to Christ in the darkness of His suffering so I believe God comes to us all in the darkness of our own suffering.
I could think of countless illustrations but one stands out. His name was LeRoy Rader. He was the Chairman of the Pulpit Committee which called me to my first pastorate. It has been my observation that there is always an unusually close relationship between a minister and the people of a pulpit committee particularly the chairman. Certainly that has been true in my experience. LeRoy Rader and I were very close. One day, some years back now, I returned to Texas to visit him. He was dying—cancer. He had been fighting it for two years. I didn’t know it then, but his death was just two days away. We talked at great length that afternoon, and he shared with me his thoughts about his suffering and about death. Then just before we said “goodbye” he said, “Do you have your little Bible with you”? I gave him the little Bible I carry in my pocket. He said, “There’s a verse in Philippians that sums up the way I feel, the way I believe.” He found that verse and then he handed the Bible back to me and said, “I want you to read that verse for me and then I want you to have a prayer with me.” This is what I read, “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” I shall never forget that, and I shall never forget something else he said to me that day. I don’t know if the words were his or if he had heard them from someone else and was simply repeating them. It doesn’t matter because the words came straight from his heart. He said to me, “I would rather walk with God in the dark than with anyone else in the light.” LeRoy Rader was saying that in the darkness of his suffering God was with him. I contend with you today that it is a beautiful thing to walk through the darkness of suffering with a God like that. Yes, I would rather walk with God in the dark than with anyone else in the light.
Consider also how God’s light shines in the darkness of death.
When God came to Calvary in the darkness, His only Son was dying. Of course, each one of us owes God a death. Make no mistake about that. The poet reminds us that:
The hands of time are wound but once,
and no man has the power,
to know just when the clock will stop,
at late or early hour.
But the clock will stop. Yes, each of us owes God a death. The fact is that Christians have much less anxiety about death than non-Christians. I believe that’s true because Christians know that God will be there even in the darkness of death. That is not just my opinion, but that has been demonstrated scientifically. For example, not long ago a California university school of psychology engaged in a study that was framed as follows. They actually made a film of a man who was dying. With his permission, they filmed his dying experience and interviewed him along the way as he moved from one stage of dying toward another. No actors, no script, no set—just a camera trained on a man who was in the process of dying. Now the camera followed all the way through so that ultimately as you watched the finished product you, quite literally, watched a man die before your very eyes. They then took that film and showed it to a wide variety of groups and individuals. Responses to the film were carefully studied, analyzed and documented. The results of the study were quite startling, especially to those who conducted the study, for they discovered that Christians, for the most part, had a radically different response to the film than did non-Christians. Documented: Christians responded to the film with confidence and hope while non-believers responded to the film with fear and anxiety. You see, Christians understand that death is a terrible thing, to be sure, and Christians know that there is nothing beautiful about death, but Christians also know something else. Christians know that when death comes, God is there. He was there for Jesus, and He will be there for us.
That is precisely what Jesus Himself was trying to tell us from the cross. He cried out, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me”? That is not a cry of separation from God though many have understood it to be such. That is not true at all. No. Do you know what those words really are? They are the first line of a Psalm—Psalm 22. It was a Psalm which would have been known by the people there on Calvary, and by repeating the first line of the Psalm, Jesus would have triggered the memories of the people there to recall the rest of that Psalm which they would have known by heart. It would have been exactly like if I would say to you right now, “Fourscore and seven years ago. . .” Immediately your mind would go on with the words of the Gettysburg Address. Or if I were to say, “We hold these truths to be self-evident…” Immediately you would pick up the opening lines of the Declaration of Independence. That’s what happened on Calvary. Jesus repeated the opening line of Psalm 22, and everyone there would have picked up the other lines of the Psalm in their minds. But why Psalm 22? I’ll tell you why. That Psalm was written hundreds of years before Calvary but it is an exact description of what transpired there. Look at what the Psalm says, “All who see me mock me; they hurl insults, shaking their heads saying, ‘He trusts in the Lord, let the Lord rescue him.’” Well, if you remember that’s exactly what the thieves and the people in the crowd said on Calvary. The Psalm continues, “They have pierced my hands and my feet.” Of course, that’s what the soldiers did to Him on the cross. The Psalm says, “My tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth.” Jesus cried out from the cross, “I thirst.” The Psalm says, “They divide my garments among them and cast lots for my clothing.” Of course, that, too, is exactly what happened at the crucifixion of Jesus. So the Psalm parallels precisely what was happening to Jesus. But here’s the point—Psalm 22 is not a song of despair. No, Psalm 22 is a song of strength and courage in the face of suffering—a song of triumph and victory in the face of death. The Psalm starts out in darkness and dying, but it ends up in light and glory. So the message of the Psalm is that no matter how deep a person may be in the darkness of death, the light of God’s presence comes shining through. So that’s what Jesus was saying when He cried, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me”? He knew that saying those words would lead to the affirmation of belief in the power of God. In essence He was saying, “It’s dark here where I am dying, but I am not alone for here in the darkness, My God is with Me.” That’s what Jesus was saying in this word from the cross.
Well, that’s all I want to say. That’s all I know to say. Except… I do want to say—and I want to ask you to work hard to understand what I’m saying when I say it—again I do want to say that once on a green hillside in Galilee, Jesus taught His disciples to pray, “Our Father, who art in Heaven.” That was good. But do you understand what I mean when I say that once on a dark hillside called Calvary, Jesus taught us that we can also pray, “Our Father, who art in hell.” That, I think, is even better. For it is when we are in the times of deep, deep darkness in life that we need to know that He is there …