Date: April 2, 1939
Palm Sunday Prayer
Christ, our only Savior:
As once Thou didst hold Thine entrance into Jerusalem amidst waving palm-branches and the acclaim of loud hosannas, do Thou now come into our hearts, our King, lowly in Thy humility but almighty in Thy power. Rule completely over our lives. Especially do we beseech Thy guiding grace for the children who today kneel at Thine altars and pledge themselves to suffer even the pain of death rather than deny Thee. Help the entire rising generation in the land to accept Thy mercies and rebuke those hellish forces that promote warfare and for reasons of profit seek to send our young men into Europe’s battlefields. Above all, as we begin this Holy Week commemorating Thy suffering and death for our redemption, grant us Thy Spirit, so that, with eyes opened to our helplessness without Thee, we may recognize the damning power of our sin and its eternally destructive consequences. Then, when we are gripped by the terror of having offended Thee and deserved nothing but wrath, lead us to Thy cross in contrite faith, there to find blood-bought pardon for every sin. Keep us faithful, even though our hearts must be humbled and our lives afflicted. Then, with the impress of the Cross on our souls, we can look forward to Thy second coming in majesty, when in triumphant faith Thy redeemed shall sing, “Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord.” Preserve us for this glory, our compassionate Savior, since we ask this in Thy name and by Thy promise! Amen.
About the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, saying, . . . My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me? – Matthew 27:46
WITH this Sunday the Christian Church enters Holy Week, seven days set aside to commemorate the last events in our Savior’s earthly life: His entry into Jerusalem amid the loud hosannas of palm-waving throng, on this day; His agony in Gethsemane, the betrayal, the arrest on Thursday night; His court trials, condemnation, crucifixion, and burial on Good Friday. Wherever on the face of this wide earth Christians are found,—and I mean those, to whatever church and denomination they may belong, who revere Jesus as their God and Savior,—there during these coming days Calvary with its cross rises high over every horizon in their hearts and hopes.
Never do Christians, Protestants and Catholics, Lutherans and Reformed, in organized church-bodies and independent groups, seem closer to each other than in this Holy Week, on Good Friday, when they all prepare to stand beneath the same cross to witness the suffering of the same Savior. How glorious and God-pleasing if in reality there could be only one Church, with the more than 500,000,000 followers of Christ over the world inwardly agreed in the full acceptance of every Scripture truth, bound together in an absolute unity of the spirit,—if there were, for example, no Northern Baptists, Southern Baptists, Primitive Baptists, Free-will Baptists, Duck River Baptists, Two-Seed-in-the-Spirit Baptists; no Roman Catholics, Greek Catholics, Old Catholics, Holy Eastern Orthodox Catholics, Polish National Catholics; no Missouri Synod Lutherans, American Lutherans, United Lutherans, Augustana Lutherans, Free Lutherans;—instead, all followers of Jesus, completely united in the same reverence for their Savior, with the same unreserved acceptance of the entire Scripture doctrine! At Calvary’s cross, stained with the life-blood of Christ, the appeal for spiritual unity resounds with its strongest invitation, rebuking those who selfishly prefer denominational power and sectarian glory to the holy truth of God. Should any of you place your own church connections above Christ and have crude dreams of the creed which you represent rising to power and to control over others, stand beneath the cross of the despised and rejected Jesus and with repentant hearts beg Him to forgive your carnal pride and boasting.
Again, of all weeks in the year, these coming days issue a solemn challenge to those church-leaders who systematically rob Christ’s cross of its comfort for groping souls. Our age has listened with cupped ears to what men have said about Jesus and His sacrificial death, with the result that too many know only a caricature of our Lord. During these hours that reach their climax five days hence, on that black Friday, we ought rather to hear what God in His unbreakable Scriptures says about the crucified Christ, and on Golgotha find in Him the Heavensent, sin-destroying Savior of the race. If, now, by the inscrutable mercy of the Almighty, it should be my privilege to have before the radios in this audience the pastors of some of these wealthy, Christ-rejecting churches or their members, I beg them to spend this half hour with us as we stand in spirit once more on the brow of Golgotha. It may be, indeed we pray God it will be, that their eyes will be opened to the true Christ and the full power of His love, so that as the centurion, beholding Christ, they, too, may exclaim: “Truly, this man was the Son of God!”
Above all, these days that recall the death of Christ and the grave to which His lifeless body was committed, send a personal, heart-directed message to the masses in our country for whom Holy Week is just another seven days, who are against Christ because they are not with Him in true faith. I have never been able to understand why, particularly on Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, the churches in this country are not overcrowded with converts, souls won by the heights of Christ’s mercy on the cross; for the blessings that come for earth and heaven through trust in the power of the blood dripping from His pierced hands and feet are so immeasurable that only the blindness of hell itself keeps men from crowding to Jesus and penitently crying: “O Christ, I know that Thou art my Savior. Have mercy upon me! Forgive all my sins! Look upon me with peace and blessing! For the sake of Thy suffering bring me, like the penitent thief at Thy side, safe into the glories of Thy kingdom!” More than 60,000,000 Americans and several millions in Canada have never prayed to Christ in this way. The multitudes of these unbelievers represent a number as large as the total population of Belgium, Bulgaria, Denmark, Finland, Greece, Holland, Hungary, Portugal, Sweden, Switzerland,—all without Christ! And because some of you, the Christless, are listening in, I plead with you: Pause and hear what God would say to your souls! Your heavenly Father calls you in this moment. Now you are close to the possibility of receiving the greatest blessing with which your soul can be enriched. A turn of the dial on your radio will lead you away from the station bringing you these words and may mean turning your soul away forever from Christ. Oh, let not Calvary’s blood be shed in vain for you, nor the death of agonies be died on the cross without giving you life! Rather come with us from coast to coast, across the plains and streams and mountains of America, in this mighty worship directed to Calvary, and behold
CHRIST’S CRUCIFIXION—LONELIEST OF ALL DEATHS
as we center our thoughts upon that sacred mystery of His suffering, the cry of history’s deepest anguish, that shriek of never-to-be-fathomed sorrow recorded in our Holy Week text (Saint Matthew, chapter 27, verse 46): “About the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, saying, . . . My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?”
THE CAUSE OF THIS GOD-FORSAKENNESS
For six hours of exhaustion, exposure, and agony Jesus had hung on the cross, suffering from the loss of blood, the fire of burning fever, unquenchable thirst, and the shattering weakness that increased as death drew near. Added to these agonies was the heartless ridicule of the wretches beneath the cross; the darkness that enshrouded the world; the moaning of the malefactors crucified on each side; the half-stifled sobs of His mother, His disciple, and the friends who had ventured to come to Calvary;—and deeper than all this, that gripping, tearing torture of His soul, incomparably more terrifying than all the pain of the crucifixion, that convulsing terror of agony that made Him cry: “My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?”
For five years on this Sunday I have tried to preach to you on this text, but each year I have felt myself so helpless before the task of interpreting this fourth word from the cross that I always chose another Scripturepassage. Here is a universe filled with unsearchable truth, and I have only the puny measure of human words with which to offer you the meaning of this God-forsakenness. Eternity will not be long enough to describe this soulquaking horror, and I have only fifteen short minutes to interpret the life-and-death message in that piercing cry which haunts us as no other dying voice in all the centuries, the sacred words that the inspired writers of the gospels record untouched in the very language in which it fell from the lips of Christ: “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani,”—words, it almost seemed, too holy to be translated.
Do you know that once when Luther submerged himself in meditation on this passage, he was so completely overwhelmed by this abysmal suffering that for a time he sat riveted to his chair, motionless as a corpse, his eyes staring, it seemed, almost into eternity? He spurned the food placed before him and remained unmoved by the entreaties of his friends. When he finally rose to his feet, the impress of this awful mystery made him break out into these words of deep-souled amazement: “Forsaken by God!—who can understand it?” Assuredly we cannot understand this cry of Calvary; but may God help us to believe that here on the cross Jesus was forsaken, not only by His own countrymen, especially by the thousands whom He did not forsake in their woes and sorrows; not only by His friends and the disciples, who had sworn renewed loyalty to Him; not only by the angel who a few hours before had strengthened Him in the Garden; but that He was forsaken—O mystery of mysteries!—also by His own Father!
History records other lonely deaths: Livingstone breathing his last in an unmarked hut in the heart of dark and throbbing Africa; Allen Gardiner starving to death on an uninhabited shore of Patagonia; John Williams, the apostle to the South Seas, crushed to death by a war club and then eaten by cannibals; yet these brave witnesses of Christ were not alone in the hour of their martyrdom; Jesus kept His promise to them: “Lo, I am with you alway.” But the same Christ, who will never desert any trusting soul in the hour of death, was Himself deserted by His own Father.
Do you know what this God-forsakenness implies? It means that God turned His face away from His own Son; that He withdrew all love from Christ; that the same almighty Lord of heaven who does not altogether cast off even atheists, blasphemers, sneering scoffers, but permits them to have food and shelter and clothing, here completely cast Him off who was Love itself. Forsaken by God! For Christ it meant the deepest depths of agony that even He could endure; pains of His divine heart and soul even more excruciating than the physical torture of a thousand crucifixions. It meant the desolation of eternal death, the living tortures of hell concentrated into these God-forsaken moments.
As this heartfelt “Why?” breaks over the rumble of Calvary, we can find the solution to the arch-sorrow of the ages not in any human deduction or psychological explanations. We must turn to the one source which answers this enigmatical “Why?”—the revelation of God’s love for a sin-stricken world. Consulting our Bibles, we learn that God abandoned Christ because on the cross, the one altar of universal and eternal atonement, Jesus—O blessed Lamb of God!—bears in His own pierced, lashed, beaten, bleeding, dying body the sins of all the world; takes upon Himself the eternal punishment of all human transgression; suffers the agonies of hell itself that mankind in its totality should have suffered. Because God forsakes every unforgiven sinner and in His holiness consigns every impenitent transgressor to punishment so terrifying that it cannot be measured, He forsook His own Son, my sin-bearing Substitute and yours; and Jesus, bereft of His Father’s love, crushed by the soul-stilling weight of a world filled with sin’s anguish, cries: “My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?”
Have you ever seen men and women who actually believed that God had forsaken them? I have, and it seems to me that life holds no sight more terrifying! Sometimes scoffers are overwhelmed at the approach of their doom, and their end is horrifying. Bishop Fenwick, who visited Tom Paine, American infidel and opponent of George Washington, tells us that, as this man, who had often sneered at religion, lay on his deathbed, among the last utterances heard from his lips was this moan of despair: “My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?” No horror any one endures can be compared with the terror that seizes his soul when he thinks of suffering eternally for his own sins; and that agony Jesus suffered, not for Himself, for there was no wrong and guilt in His life; not for one sinner, but, as the ancient prophet put it, “for the iniquity of us all.”
Can you not see that the most vital issue in your life is this: you must understand the significance of the Savior’s cross and the reason He cried: “My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?” If even those who stood beneath the cross misunderstood His opening words: “Eli, Eli,” and thought, either in taunt or fear, that He was calling the prophet Elijah, we must be prepared for the similar tragedy that some who stand far from Calvary have likewise misunderstood this death-cry. With a poisonous hatred of Christ leaders of modern godlessness do not hesitate to picture the crucified Lord as a failure, who had hoped God would help Him but suddenly finds that He is forsaken. How terrifying will be their awakening!
For the sake of your immortal souls I plead with you: Do not refuse to believe that Christ was forsaken in your stead, that He felt the brunt of divine rejection which you should have suffered. Don’t say that this is an oldfashioned creed, which has outlived its influence in an age when no one takes sin seriously. God’s Law never changes. That pointed warning “Ye shall die in your sins!” is the ever-repeated drone of heavenly thunder over all wickedness. Your own conscience, unless you have drugged or deadened it, constantly warns: You must get right with God. And how else—in this age of easy religions and comfortable beliefs—can you come to God if not by the Crucified, whose cross reaffirms His pointed claim: “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life; no man cometh unto the Father but by Me!”
Don’t object that you will not accept Christ as your Substitute because you cannot understand how He, as the Son of God, could be forsaken in this most desolate death or because you cannot comprehend how He can take your sins and justify you before God. Too many today want to take the supernatural element and the divine mystery out of the Christian faith. They demand cut-and-dried explanations for every part of our creed. Yet when the simple truths of life are involved, every one of us is constantly surrounded by processes of nature in our own bodies and in the world about us for which we cannot account. These weeks of spring in many ways bring us the most mysterious season of the year, when the world below and around us throbs with new life. Now, have our leading scientists and Nobel-prize winners ever explained the power of life in a single blade of green grass that after a winter’s sleep pushes its way through the black earth? And if in the realms of nature men are constantly confronted by these inexplicable facts, the actuality of which no one questions, it is both irrational and irreverent for them to demand a cold analysis of the mysteries of our Christian faith. Under the cross in this hour of the Savior’s abandonment by God there is no room for question, argument, proof. The stark reality of this crucifixion proclaims to you, whether you can understand it or not, that Christ was deserted of His Father because through your sins you should have been deserted; that “God made Him to be sin for us who knew no sin that we might be made the righteousness of God in Him”; and blessed, eternally blessed, is he who believes even though he cannot understand!
ETERNAL BLESSINGS FROM THIS GOD-FORSAKENNESS
For what wealth of comfort and strength flows into your hearts through faith in Christ’s redemptive death on that first Good Friday! Clinging to the cross, our faith tells us that, because God forsook Jesus, He will never forsake us; that Christ’s rejection brings our redemption; that through the cross of malice we are granted the crown of glory.
You can see why this broadcast has no time for, and takes no interest in, political agitation; Christ on the cross saves men’s souls for eternity long after every political issue will have been forgotten. You can see, too, why we have no sympathy for those who becloud the free grace of Christ, subtly question its truth, change the divine certainty of salvation into uncertainty; try to make our salvation depend partly on our own merits, prayers, charities, good intentions, churchgoing, instead of entirely upon the grace of God in Christ. This week of all times we ought to realize, with clear and decisive verdict, that the sacred truth which distinguishes Christianity from every other creed is the plain message of the cross: “God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto Himself.” The way to tell whether a church is Christian is not to look at its name, its size, or its importance; not to examine its rituals and ceremonies; not to scan the list of its members, but to see whether the message of full, free, final salvation is proclaimed and believed. The test which you can make in your own life to determine whether you are a true follower of Jesus Christ is not to exhibit the faith of your family; not simply to ask yourself whether you go to church, thinking that any church will do; not to exalt your own character and believe that you are morally better, more nearly perfect than the man next door, or especially than the prisoner in the State penitentiary. To answer the all-absorbing question: “Am I a Christian, a true follower of Jesus Christ?” you must make this acid test and ask: “Have I knelt in spirit before my Savior to say: ‘O Christ, I am full of sins. I have deserved temporal and eternal punishment for my transgressions. Yet, O Jesus, how I thank Thee for the undeserved mercy that Thou didst love me with the devotion unto death by which the punishment of my sins was placed on Thy soul at Calvary! O Jesus, I trust Thee! O Jesus, Thou art mine, and I by faith am Thine; and because Thou wast forsaken in the depths of Thine agonies, Thou dost say to me: “I will never leave thee nor forsake thee”?’” Now, if you don’t know Christ in this penitent, confident, triumphant faith, don’t tell me that you are an elder in the church, the president of the men’s club, a soloist in the choir, the secretary of the ladies’ aid, the entertainment chairman for the young people; don’t say even that you are in the family pew every Sunday, tithe your income, offer a dozen prayers a day; for without firm trust in the redemptive love of Christ you don’t begin to know Jesus. On the other hand, if you have beheld the cross and acclaimed this Christ, Son of God and Son of Man, your Savior, your all-sufficient Redeemer, then on whatever level of human society you may live, however high or low your culture may be, you are in truth a disciple of Jesus Christ, blessed for eternity. Your soul cannot perish! Heaven is yours! You will never be deserted by God because Christ, as your Substitute, was deserted. You will never suffer the punishment for your sins because Jesus suffered in your stead. You will never see eternal death, for Christ died in your place.
What courage for our sorrows we can find at the cross in Jesus’ God-abandonment! Not a few of you, as your letters reveal, are leading lonely lives. Some of you have been deserted by a faithless helpmate. Many have lost dearly beloved ones in death. Still others have traveled so far along life’s highway that most of your former companions and friends have fallen by the wayside and the pathway becomes lonelier every day that you still live. Many of you exist alone in furnished rooms, far from your family or kin. Some of your letters come from public institutions, prisons, or from unfortunate listeners driven away from their homes by their own transgressions. What indescribable comfort can be yours hearing Jesus say: “Lo, I am with you alway”! Blessed by that faith, you can turn your solitude into a mighty asset for happiness; you have the personal companionship of Christ for every moment you face adversity alone. When you are wheeled into the operating-room, when a drunken husband deserts you, when your children leave home, when sudden accident spares only you of all your family, then, praying in the name of that Savior, you can say: “I am alone, ‘yet I am not alone,’ for Thou, O Christ of Calvary’s compassion, art with me.”
Make Jesus your holy Example in suffering! Throughout the agonies of the crucifixion only one question escapes His lips, this haunting, disconsolate cry: “My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?” During the rest of the six hours in which He suffered, suspended between heaven and earth, with the exception of a few other utterances, Christ maintained a holy silence. How often we scream and accuse God of unfairness when only trivial things go wrong! How easily we lose courage at our first rebuff! Now, if we would learn the lesson that comes from this loneliest death of all history, we must use the same source of strength from which Jesus drew. His cry “My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?” was a quotation from the Twenty-second Psalm, just as His last word, “Father, into Thy hands I commend My spirit,” repeated the words of the Psalter. Jesus knew His Bible, and in the hour of His deepest sorrow the words of Scripture flashed across His mind. Oh, for a revival of a deeper study of the Bible throughout the nation! A personal and trustful knowledge of the Scriptures is the best insurance of victory over every sorrow. You can never go wrong if, following Christ on the cross, you take your Bible and daily memorize passages of promise for the safeguarding of your immortal soul. Notable leaders in all walks of life have found the citation of a passage from the psalms, the prophets, or particularly from Christ’s own lips a source of heavenly comfort and a sure defense against despair. Delve deeply into this divine Word, and in any crisis its divine wisdom will richly reward you!
As Jesus, praying to His Father, used this remarkable double address, the only repetition of its kind in the entire Scripture, “My God, My God,” to show that His faith triumphed over pain and forsakenness, so I ask for all of you this triumphant, doubt-removing trust which, crying, “My God, my God,” clings with double fervor to God the Father and Creator, God the Son and Redeemer, God the Spirit and Sanctifier. When in your dark moments you repeat, “My God, my God,” in Christ’s name, your Father will hear you, and you can exult: “If God be for us, who can be against us?” Use these sacred words reverently in an age when grasping men begin almost every other sentence with “My God.” Profanity is always a most despicable vice; and this taking of the name of the Lord, our God, in vain by foul-mouthed unbelievers and sometimes—may Christ forgive them!—even by people who claim to be Christians, is entirely inexcusable. Speak devoutly when your lips utter the word “God” and He with whom nothing shall be impossible will bless you for your humility and faith.
Whenever it seems to you who are Christ’s that you are forsaken by God,—and today I have this special comfort for those heavily burdened souls who think that God has cut them off, who are driving their bodies and minds to the breaking-point because they believe they have become guilty of an unpardonable sin; if you ask, “Why hast Thou forsaken me?”—turn to Christ on the cross; trust His love; pray as He did, “My God, my God,” and that faith must help you. He was not everlastingly deserted. Good Friday gave way to glorious Easter; and so the pathway in your life will be from trial to triumph. Even during days of burden, when you are bowed down by the pressure of agony, what comforting strength of soul and mind to know that Jesus, who was forsaken, understands the problems of those who think they are forsaken.
Through Christ your deep sorrows will always be removed, sometimes sooner, sometimes later, but always at God’s right moment. Wait patiently for the Lord! Remember, when Cyrus Field sought to lay the great cable between this country and Europe, he met with repeated delays, disappointments, and ridicule. Time and again the cable snapped. He had to cross the ocean seventyfour times before the connection was secured between the two continents. Sometimes much time is required until the victorious contact between God and our lives is established. Often for the increasing of our faith, the purifying of our desires, the deepening of our sympathy, God permits His children to suffer; but the longer they suffer, the more glorious their deliverance. No agony was like unto the sorrow of Calvary; but no deliverance can compare with the triumph on the third day at the open grave.
My fellow-worshipers throughout the country and my friends beyond its borders, will this victory be yours? Today is Palm Sunday, the one Sunday that has a special message for those who once were Christ’s but who deserted Him, even as His countrymen acclaimed Him at His entrance into Jerusalem but five days later never raised their hands or voices to defend Him in His deepest sorrows. Jesus appeals to some of you who may have turned their backs on His outstretched arms, given up their church-membership, and proved unfaithful to His love. His nail-scarred hands are outstretched, beseeching you to come back to the love you have forsaken, yet the love that will never forsake you. Today, too, the week starts in which Jesus issues the strongest plea to sinners that even He, the almighty God, can make, the pleading of His sacred redeeming mercy: “‘Is it nothing to you’ that Jesus here suffers these indescribable tortures for your redemption?” Oh, may God give you the grace to fall on your knees while the mystery of the Savior’s death unfolds itself to your eyes! Before it is too late, before with stubborn and continued unbelief you harden your hearts, so that finally you cannot believe, come to the Christ of all mercy! Come, I beg you, to Him who not only cried: “My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?” but whose Word, deathless, unchangeable, written particularly for you, promises: “I will never leave thee nor forsake thee!”
God grant you this holy faith, through the crucified Christ, for your eternal salvation! Amen.
Published with the permission of The Maier Center, Concordia University, Ann Arbor, Michigan 48105.