_ 33 When it was noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. 34 At three o'clock Jesus cried out with a loud voice, "Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?" which means, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" 35 When some of the bystanders heard it, they said, "Listen, he is calling for Elijah." 36 And someone ran, filled a sponge with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink, saying, "Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to take him down." 37 Then Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last. 38 And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. 39 Now when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, "Truly this man was God's Son!" _
She sat in the same pew every Sunday, the same seat in Sunday school, Bible study, and prayer meetings. Folks noticed when she wasn't there, because everyone loved her. They let her know every Sunday with hugs and kisses on the cheek. They let her know with cards and cakes, with occasional visits and phone calls. Her husband had been gone for years; they had no children. After every service, every meeting, she would achingly slide behind the wheel of her car and slowly wind her way back home, where she would sit in her chair and stare at the wall-the pictures cataloging a life of joy and celebrations. She'd sit there until dark, maybe turn on the television just to hear other voices. Then she'd shuffle down the hall to lie in the bed until sleep came.
There came that day (a day that will come for all of us) when health was no longer the luxury it once was, when she was too weak to walk, too weak to bring the spoon to her mouth. She was moved from her home and across town to a different home. Her pew was vacant for a little while, her absence felt by fewer as the days and weeks ticked by. The visitors thinned out as time passed and her condition progressed. The phone stopped ringing. Then, one evening, with the low roar of the television as the only other presence in the room, she exhaled one last time. She was alone.
His was a life to be envied. He had a beautiful wife, adoring, successful children, a reputation in his community of charity and generosity. So many looked up to him. He taught Sunday school, was a generous giver of his time and money. The lives he touched, the lives he changed can't be counted. The pictures on his desk, on his wall, on his phone captured a life of adventure and excitement, of vacations in exotic places with his family. Everyday seemed to be filled with joy and purpose for him, yet in those few moments when the busyness hushed, when those around him were occupied with other aspects of their own lives, he was left with only the sound of his own voice echoing in his mind. Then one day, when the weight of it all-the weight of an enviable life, the heft of a remarkable existence-seemed too heavy to bear, a few too many pills silenced that echoing voice in his head. Surrounded by those he loved, admired and adored by those who loved him, he was alone.
For over thirty years he was surrounded by family and friends. He was raised in a time and place when most (if not all) of the family stayed close to home, took up the family business, and worshipped together in the same place. Even as an adult, when he seemed to strike out on his own, seeking to fulfill his vocation that came from some holy, other source, he was engulfed in the presence of others. He was there, in line with the multitude, as his cousin John was baptizing in the Jordan River; when he came up out of the water it was clear to some that even God was with him as the sky tore open and the voice from heaven said, "This is my beloved son. I'm pleased with him." It seemed everywhere he went people flocked to him, asking for advice, seeking help, needing healing: some came wanting an insight into the scriptures, some came wanting to heal a sick friend, others came pleading for the life of a sick child, and still others came asking the deep, difficult questions of existence. Thousands followed him wherever he went: all four gospels tell of a time when he and his disciples had to provide food for at least five thousand others. They were always there, following him around wherever he went. He was never alone.
Jesus seemed to be inundated by the presence of others. It should come as no surprise then that in several places throughout the gospel accounts we're told that he would withdraw from the group, find somewhere he could be alone with his thoughts, a place where he would not be bothered, a place to quietly pray. Any parent who has had to stay at home with the wild, running, screaming children knows that feeling-the need to just have a moment or two of peace, away from the noise, the demands, the complaints...that need to just be alone. It shouldn't shock us that Jesus needed to retreat once in a while, especially when there were thousands of others begging for a moment of his time, thousands of voices calling his name, wanting his attention, but that all changed.
Mark (I think) tells it most succinctly, most hauntingly, in chapter fourteen. It was just after one of those times when Jesus needed to be alone, when he needed a moment or two to pray. It was at a place called Gethsemane, just outside of Jerusalem, where he told his disciples to wait. He took the three closest to him (Peter, James, and John) and walked on a little farther. Then, he charged them with the task of staying awake and keeping watch as he went on a little farther still, to be alone with his thoughts, his prayers, his grief. Then, after having to wake up his watching friends three times, Judas arrives to betray him. Jesus is arrested, and as soon as the cuffs are on we hear words that weigh heavy on the page in verse fifty of that chapter: "All of them deserted him and fled." He was alone.
From that moment on, Jesus would be shuttled back and forth between Jewish authorities and Roman officials. His innocence questioned, simultaneously confirmed and denied. Even his closest follower would deny ever knowing him-not once, not twice, but three times, even cursing at the very notion that he knew Jesus. The same crowd that followed him for so long, the same multitude that seemed to hang on his every word, the same people who witnessed his works of mercy and power, the same mass that made it near impossible for him to be alone, these people now called for the life of a murderer in exchange for Jesus' life. When they were asked what should happen to him they all shouted "Crucify him!" Gone was their desire to know him. Gone was their need to be near him. Gone was their want to witness his works of wonder. Like a child caught in the midst of mischief, they have piled the fault on and pointed the finger at Jesus. "We're not with him. We were just checking to see what he was up to. We were following him because we wanted to keep an eye on him." They shouted all the more, "Crucify him!" His disciples deserted him; the crowd turned on him. He was alone.
Alone, abandoned, Jesus is flogged, handed over to be crucified. He is mocked by those who see him-those who once huddled together to hear him and his words about the kingdom of heaven. Nailed to the cross, Jesus is joined by two strangers, strangers who Mark tells us taunted Jesus (though Luke tells us one would ask to be remembered by him). He isn't crucified with two who followed him. He isn't executed with those who ate at the table with him. Not even the one who-when Jesus told him he would be rejected and killed-declared "Over my dead body!" is there. Even the One whose voice declared from the ripped heavens by the Jordan that Jesus was his Son, the One who commanded the disciples to listen to Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration, the One to whom Jesus had turned to in prayer those times he went by himself to pray-even the Father seemed absent as the sky darkened at noon. It was as if creation had gone off track in the absence of the Creator.
For three hours the darkness lingered. For three hours Christ hanged on the cross, in the darkness, alone. Then, "At three o'clock Jesus cried out with a loud voice, ‘Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?' which means, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?'" He was alone, and in that loneliness, Jesus cried out with the words of Psalm 22, a psalm pleading for deliverance from suffering. All have deserted him; even God seems to have abandoned him in this dark hour. The pain and suffering that came with the self-giving love of Christ was compounded by the deepening darkness, the immense isolation, the lingering loneliness. It proved too much to bear, for we are told: "Then Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. Now when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, ‘Truly this man was God's Son!'" In his loneliness and grief, in his pain and suffering, with a pleading cry and final breath, Jesus is finally recognized as the Son of God.
It's not at the manger with a host of angels singing glory to God in the highest heaven. It isn't on the shore of Lake Galilee as Jesus ends his wondrous walk across the water. It isn't by the tomb of Lazarus in Bethany when the one once dead come lumbering forth from the grave. It isn't on a hillside as baskets weave their way through the hungry masses following Jesus' miraculous multiplication of fish and bread. Jesus is recognized as the Son of God when in the midst of loneliness, grief, and suffering he breathes his last. But isn't that when we tend to recognize God?
Isn't that where we most often see Jesus, when we feel we're at the end of our rope, when the weight of the troubles of this world cause our souls to ache, when we've walked out on the limb and it seems everyone else stayed behind to cut it out from under us? Isn't that when we feel the need for a loving God most keenly, when all hope seems gone, when all our friends and family have left us, when the silence seems too loud, when the way seems too dark? When we're alone.
We say those words so often, the words of the psalmist in the old King James Version of the twenty-third Psalm: "Yea, thou I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me..." Yet so often it seems hard to believe that God is with us-especially in the shadowy valleys. When the bills pile higher...when the chemo isn't working...when the divorce papers have to be signed...when the rent is due and the car won't start and there's not a single dollar in your wallet...it can be hard to believe that God is with us. When the meds don't work...when the depression sets it...when the children don't mind...when the judge says "guilty"...when the casket is lowered in the ground after an untimely end and an unfair fight...it's easy to believe we're alone in all of this. When others cast judgment on behalf of God...when cherry-picked Bible verses seem too pithy...when the pseudo-theology of a white-washed Christian culture says things like "oh well, God has a plan" or "the Lord works in mysterious ways, and we have to trust him" and it all just seems to shallow to matter...it can be difficult to believe that there is a God who loves us enough to die for us. When life seems too hard to carry on, it can be hard to believe in a God who sits on a throne in the clouds above us-thankfully, we do not worship that kind of God!
For our God is One who has taken on our burdens and our cares-not in some fanciful, transcendent sense, but in the reality of flesh and blood. We are loved by a God who has wept with those who mourn, eaten with those who were hungry, laughed with those who have rejoiced, prayed with those who searched for guidance, and yes, suffered with those who were suffering. We worship and serve a God who has literally walked this earth and felt what we have felt. We worship and serve a Christ who has even felt the horrifying pain of loneliness! And in that we take comfort! In that good news we find hope that when the way seems dark, when all others have deserted us, there is One who never will, One who has gone on before us, One who has shown us that through the pain, through the heartbreak, through the darkness, there is resurrection! There is life!
So, when the way is dark before you, when it seems as if all others have abandoned you, when you feel most alone, even in the presence of so many, remember that Christ has been in your place and he is in that place with you-even now-so that you will never be there alone. May we be the real presence of Christ in each other's lives, so that when we feel the grip of grief, the shadow of death, the darkening presence of loneliness, we won't have to face it alone. Amen.