Lesson 1: Psalm 22; Matthew 27:45-56
My name is John. For years, clinical depression has dogged at my heels. It rolls in like a dense, gray fog, dulling my senses and sapping my energy. Work, life and even getting out of bed can become a terrible struggle. Medication helps only a little. I wait for those days when the fog lifts and the sky is bright with light. But there is no calendar that can tell me when there will be good days nor predict the days when the fog takes over. Healer Jesus, why have you abandoned me to this illness?
It has been months of death for me. I am Amy. First, it was my younger brother, only 20 years old, who died from COVID-19. Then my mother ended up alone, on a ventilator in intensive care as the virus took her life. She had no one to hold her hand, to stroke her hair or pray with her. There was no memorial service at church, no gathering of friends and family to mourn, support and share memories. My God, where were you? You did not even show up!
I am Dr. Jordan, M.D. Today was the seventh time this year that I have been stopped by the police for nothing — just guilty of driving while Black. My heart races whenever I see a police car. I think about the Black people killed this year, last year, the years before that. I can’t help but wonder as I drive to work, “Will I make it home alive today?” My Lord, protect me! Protect my sons! Where have you been all these years? Break down the racism that ravages our nation!
The three short descriptions above describe times when people have felt abandoned by God. This abandonment is described vividly in Psalm 22. The unknown writer, whom we will call the “psalmist” is worn out with a pacing, desperate prayer.
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from helping me,
from the words of my groaning?
O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer;
and by night, but find no rest. (Psalm 22:1-2)
Interspersed with affirmations of trust in God, the psalmist describes his terrible plight. Friends have turned away. He is mocked. Enemies circle him, ready to devour him like hungry dogs or ravenous lions. The psalmist is near death, dried up, his will melted away.
Even in these unbearable circumstances, memory rises to interweave hope in and out of the pain. The psalmist thinks back in history to when the people of God had trusted and God delivered them (verses 3-5). The psalmist recollects his earliest days when God was like a midwife delivering him from his mother’s womb (verses 9-10). God has been present in the past, therefore, the psalmist believes that God can bring change. To recall the times when we have been in a close relationship with God changes the present moment. Memories of God’s grace and love brings hope forward.
Psalm 22 is quoted by Jesus. As he was dying on the cross, Jesus uttered the psalm’s first words: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Jesus enters the suffering, abuse and torment of the psalmist — and that of all who have and will pray this psalm. The crucified Christ is one who personally identifies with those who are abused, tormented, forsaken by family and friends or worn down by economic oppression, racism or injustice. “He gives all his followers who are afflicted permission and encouragement to pray for help. He shows that faith includes holding the worst of life up to God,” wrote James Luther Mays. Jesus has experienced and understands our suffering. In the terrible isolation that affliction brings, Jesus walks with us.
When Jesus quotes Psalm 22, we are also pointed toward God’s deliverance. “Citing the first words of a text was, in the tradition of the time, a way of identifying an entire passage,” Mays noted. Those who heard of Jesus’ words on the cross would have known or studied the entire psalm and been familiar with the psalmist’s desperate pleas for help, and finally the joy of being saved from danger. Indeed, Psalm 22 moves to a future where redemption comes, the poor are satisfied and a host of people rejoice in God. Psalm 22 holds out a promise that as God has acted with love in the past, God will do so in the future. We may not see the time when illness, racism or the economic oppression of the poor is ended, but we live in expectation that, just as God raised Jesus from the dead, God will new bring life, hope and courage.
Rosalind Banbury lives in Richmond, Virginia, and is a pastor in the Presbytery of the James.
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