Never Forsaken, Never Alone

Sunday Worship at Black Forest Community Church
Black Forest, CO
July 6, 2014 (Fourth Sermon in Stained-Glass Window Series)
© Rev. Diane Kay Martin

Never Forsaken, Never Alone

GOSPEL READINGS

Luke 4:1-2, 9-12 – Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. … Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.'” Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'”

Matthew 27:35-36, 45-46 – And when they had crucified him, they divided his clothes among themselves by casting lots; then they sat down there and kept watch over him. … From noon on, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. And about three o’clock Jesus cried with a loud voice … “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Good morning! Today we continue our sermon series on our stained-glass windows. These windows have taken us, so far, through the story of the life and ministry of Jesus, from (1) his birth to (2) his baptism and his raising up a group of followers who would carry on (3) his message of “love one another” and his other teachings about how to “be” the church to, today, (4) his temptation in the wilderness and his crucifixion. This, the “Temptation and Crucifixion Window,” is by far the darkest, the most somber and almost frightening of the windows. Because of that, this was not a fun sermon to write, and it will not be a fun sermon to preach. But the temptation and crucifixion are a crucial part of the Jesus story, and the story wouldn’t be complete without them. And neither would our stories. Because we all have those dark, somber, frightening times in our lives, don’t we? Thank God those times are not the end of the story… There is another window in the series…

Let’s take a good look at this window. In the video, A Community Cornerstone, Rev. Nick Natelli describes this as “a very busy window but a very exciting window.” Indeed, I would agree.

First of all, I invite you to notice the edges of the window. There are 40 small yellow squares with a sun in each, alternating with 40 darker squares. These represent the 40 days and the 40 nights during which our scripture says Jesus was tempted in the wilderness after he was baptized. Then we have the tree from the Genesis account of the Garden of Eden, with the apple, the symbol of the initial temptation of humankind. Then we have a beast, presumably Al Wynne’s way of depicting the devil, or evil. It’s a frightful image—with horns and fangs and claws and spikes and a leering grin that could haunt small children in their sleep. It’s cartoonish, but it’s intense, and I don’t think we would want any more graphic of a depiction of the enemy than that in our sanctuary, would we? Then we have the angels, ready to bear Jesus up through this temptation, and we have Jesus, fending off the devil, pushing him away, grasping him almost grotesquely at the front of his neck. And we have, in the foreground, Jesus’ words, his response to the devil: “Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God.”

In the next panel, we have Jesus on the cross, as Rev. Natelli puts it, “paying the price for what he believed.” Jesus wears the crown of thorns—the mark of derision and ridicule—has blood flowing from his hands, and we see the cross behind him and the words, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” in the foreground.

We’re familiar with the settings of these two stories. In the first panel, Jesus has just been baptized, and he goes into the wilderness for 40 days where he will be tempted, or tested (it’s the same word in the Greek), by the devil. According to the Gospels, Jesus’ ministry hasn’t really begun yet. He hasn’t done any miracles. He hasn’t really done much teaching. He has been obedient to what his faith told him he should do, by being baptized—and the devil is angry. The devil wants to snuff him out right away so he cannot go on and do the things he was called to do. So he tests him—tempts him—tries to get him to give in to him and settle for less than what God has planned for him. He finds him out in the wilderness and says, “Aha! Now I’ve got you! You’re hungry! I’ll provide for you. You’re insignificant! I’ll promote you! You’re vulnerable! I’ll protect you!” (See what I did there? Three “p”s. It would make my preaching professor proud! J )

The devil even quotes scripture to Jesus to convince him that he’s sincere. (A word to the wise: Not everyone who quotes scripture to you has the best of intentions!) The devil says, “Why not test God? You know you can trust him!” <<wink>> He uses Psalm 91:11-12: “For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways. On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.”

The temptation is great, to settle for less than what God has for us. The temptation is great to take shortcuts to get provision, protection and promotion from other sources that pull us away from God’s best. It’s tough sometimes to say no, and it’s tough sometimes to discern which of two options is God’s will—God’s best hope—for us. Making wise decisions takes time, and prayer, and meditation on what we know to be true about God. Jesus took time. A full forty days.

And when the devil tried to tempt Jesus into testing God, Jesus was able to hold fast to his faith and give him a scripture right back. He fought fire with fire. He quoted Deuteronomy 6:16, “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test,” or, as we have it on the window, “Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God.” Jesus calls the devil’s bluff—“I don’t need to test God. I know God is faithful!”—and the devil goes away, defeated—for now. And here, I picture Jesus breathing a prayer to God, “Yes. I know. That’s right. You will always be with me, through whatever comes my way.”

But I wonder if Jesus had any idea how difficult the next three years would be. I wonder if he could have imagined what the rejection, the criticism, the constant testing by the devout religious people would feel like. I wonder if he could imagine how heavily the needs of the people would weigh upon his shoulders. I wonder if he had any sense of how very alone he would feel at times when he cried out to God in prayer and the heavens felt as unyielding as stone. Yet Jesus did feel those things, did experience those things, just as we do in this life.

And the culmination of the human experience for Jesus was this, in the next panel: a desperate man, hanging on a cross, with punctured hands and feet, wearing a crown of ridicule while the guards take bids on his blood-stained scraps of clothing.

I can’t imagine that Jesus could have pictured that kind of pain. And maybe God intentionally withheld the details from him, because God knew how incredibly difficult it would be for any person—even for Jesus—to remain faithful through that kind of agony and torment. Have you ever thought, “If only I had known how difficult this would be, I could have prepared emotionally for it.” More often, I think, we survive more than we ever thought we could because we didn’t know how difficult it would be. It’s an act of mercy on God’s part to keep some details from us.

Our second reading says that from noon until 3 p.m. while Jesus was hanging on the cross, it was dark. In the middle of the day, it was pitch dark for three hours. Some say this is when God left. It certainly must have felt that way to Jesus, because in agony, he cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why have you left me alone like this? I came to earth and did what you asked me to do. I healed their sick. I fed their hungry multitudes. I tried to teach them how to love. I am hanging here because of my love for you! And this is how you are toward me? You leave me now? Why, God, why?”

We all find ourselves asking God “Why?” at one point or another, don’t we?

I have heard a powerful theory about God’s answer to this question. It’s a theory that makes me love God even more because of it. I have heard it said that God could not stand the agony of watching Jesus in such torment, and that he had to turn his face away. He did not leave Jesus nor forsake him, but he turned his face away for the space of three hours, between noon and 3 p.m., and during those hours, without God’s light, the world was dark. God was grieving because of the pain Jesus felt—both his physical and his emotional pain—and had to turn away until it was over.

So this would make this window as much about the nature of God than about the life of Jesus. If we read the Gospels carefully, we become aware of an incredible intimacy between Jesus and his heavenly Father, and a father who is so tender that he cannot look on his own son’s agony is a father I, too, can embrace.

I have always struggled a bit with the Christian view that says God couldn’t forgive our sins unless he had a blood sacrifice to make atonement for us. In fact, a major critique of Christianity by people of other faiths is that they wouldn’t want to serve such a bloodthirsty God who had to have his own son killed before he would forgive all of humanity for their shortcomings.

But this view—that Jesus died willingly for his revolutionary belief in an all-loving God, and that God could not bear to watch the horror of it and had to turn away—reveals a God who is not bloodthirsty and vengeful but loving and compassionate, a God who forgives because of that love, a God who will never forsake us, never leave us alone, even in those dark, somber, frightening times that are part of all of our lives.

Granted, God may have to turn his face away for a moment when our pain is the deepest, and we may feel the loss of his companionship during those times, but thank God, that’s not the end of the story! There is another window in the series! There is Easter! There is resurrection! There is a new day! There is a new people of God called the church who journey together from the darkness into the light. And we are part of that people of God! Never forsaken, never alone.

Thank God this window is not the end of the story! Amen.