Last week, I came across this blog entry: http://tworiversblog.com/2015/03/11/mark-1534-abandoned/
The author, Beejai, invites us to view a clip from The Pusuit of Happiness where father and son have reached rock bottom. He then asks us to, ‘Imagine if, at that point, Chris got up and just left his son there in the bathroom floor. Imagine him walking out the door and leaving his boy all alone…’
So I’m imagining. And while I’m imagining, I’m thinking, ‘What kind of a father would do that?’ And the images that come into my mind are not at all pleasant.
There is a famous hymn by Stuart Townend which contains the following words:
How great the pain of searing loss
The Father turns his face away
They are words that many people seem to sing quite happily. The idea behind them is that God could not look on Jesus when he was on the cross because he was carrying our sin. Instead, God abandoned him to his fate in order that he should experience the full punishment of our sin, including separation from God. This is considered by some, including Stuart Townend, to be good theology. And the reference usually given in support of it is the prayer that Jesus prayed in Mark 15:34: ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’
Nonetheless, this is a hymn I cannot sing. The words stick in my throat. They stick in my throat precisely because of the image that Beejai asks us to imagine, of the father walking out on his son. I cannot bring myself to believe that God could be that kind of father. Not ever. Especially not at the worst possible moment of the worst possible day that anyone could ever have. It makes no sense. If God were that kind of father, then what does it say about God? Is God someone I can trust? I think not.
But that’s not the only reason I have difficulty with those words. For me, they raise questions about the other prayers that Jesus is supposed to have uttered from the cross: ‘Father, forgive them…’ and ‘Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.’ Did the Father hear those prayers? How could he have done, if he had abandoned Jesus? Yet, Matthew and Luke tell us Jesus prayed those prayers, trusting his Father to hear and honour them.
Also, there is the rest of Psalm 22 to consider. As already noted, Verse 1 reads:
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from saving me,
So far from my cries of anguish?
There is little doubt that this is a cry of desperation, of the same kind that you or I might make in a similar situation. The cry expresses everything that the Psalmist is feeling and experiencing. Where is God in all this mess? Surely, not here! There follows a lengthy description of the Psalmist being mocked and insulted, stripped and wounded – a description that is remarkably similar to the one Mark offers us of the crucifixion (Mark 15:21-33).
But what then? In verse 24 of Psalm 22, we read:
For he has not despised or scorned
the suffering of the afflicted one;
he has not hidden his face from him
but has listened to his cry for help.’
In other words, if we put Jesus’ cry back into the context of Psalm 22, we find a clear reference to God’s face *not* being turned away – the complete opposite of what Stuart Townend’s hymn suggests.
Interestingly, the picture Mark is pointing to is one that would have been contentious even at the time of Jesus. Jews and Romans alike would have found it preposterous. As Paul wrote, ‘We preach Christ crucified: a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.’ (1 Corinthians 1:23) The concept of God being present with the man on the cross was beyond belief. The whole fact that he was hanging there was taken as a demonstration that God was *not* with him. Weak, beaten, shamed, powerless, dying; this man could not be a son of God! Dammit, this man wasn’t even worth God’s notice! Hence the heckling from the crowd.
It’s at this point in Mark’s story, when the heckling reaches its height, that we hear the first line of Psalm 22 on Jesus’s lips, apparently confirming all that the crowd is yelling. For Jesus, it can only be the end; a bitter, God forsaken end. It’s not until we look a little deeper that we see, contrary to all expectation, that God has not hidden his face from this man after all (Psalm 22:24 above). The relationship is not severed. God has heard the cry – Jesus’s cry and our cry all wrapped up together – and God is answering it. Hence (from the final verses of the Psalm):
Future generations will be told about the Lord.
They will proclaim his righteousness, declaring to a people yet unborn:
He has done it!
In other words, human sin did not have the last word. Its power to abuse, oppress, maim, kill and destroy did not win through. Instead of being the end, this was to be the start of a new beginning. A new power had been released, with the potential to change the world.
That’s how deep I believe the Father’s love is for us. He did not turn his face away. He does not turn his face away. Ever. No-one is too shameful for him to look upon. No-one is beyond redemption.