Matthew, the ex-tax-collector, was throwing a party to his former business associates. He was on top of the world! He had made his big decision: he was "leaving all," to follow the Master, Jesus of Nazareth, the most wonderful man he had ever met. The happy and carefree atmosphere of the feast scandalized the Pharisees and the followers of John the Baptist - those long-faced Puritans who thought religion should be a gloomy affair, fasting, and artificially depriving oneself of the joy of living. They made some sarcastic remarks to the disciples, to which Jesus replied, "Can the children of the bride-chamber mourn while the bridegroom is with them? But the days will come when the bridegroom shall be taken from them; then shall they fast." (Matthew 9:15) In other words, "Don't begrudge my disciples the joy of new beginnings. Their present jollity does not indicate a failure to realize the serious side of life; it is just a natural bubbling-up of joy accompanying a conversion experience, the turning to a higher way." Jesus was with them as the Bridegroom; not yet, perhaps, as Husband. This was a betrothal or engagement celebration. Everyone was happy at the prospect of a complete mystical union with their Lord and Master. Later, before the union could be effected, Jesus would be taken away. His disciples would then experience a greater fasting and sorrow than the Pharisees were capable of, going so much deeper because of their present capacity for joy. "The days will come when the bridegroom shall be taken from them, and then shall they fast."
It came true indeed. The Lord was taken from them! Our imagination is not capable of conceiving the shock and tragedy of it, as they saw their beloved Master led away in chains . . . and later, in the distance, outlined against the sky, his broken body hanging on a cross. Yet this shattering of their fondest hopes actually had a healthy effect on them; it was the one thing they needed at that time. Not one of them had really understood our Lord's mission. Even James and John had expected an earthly kingdom in which they were to hold high office. When this fell through, they all ran away. But after the crucifixion and resurrection, and the events following, leading up to the Ascension, and the Pentecostal outpouring of the Holy Spirit, they at last began to understand. They were transformed! Where they had been weak, now they were strong. Fear was turned to invincible courage. Fasting was finished with forever; their sorrow became a deep-down joy. The Lord was no longer a mere bridegroom; He had become the Husband of his Church.
Three stages seem to be indicated. (1) Conversion: the Lord present as the bridegroom. Superficial joy as you make your vows. (2) Temptation: doubt, sorrow, anguish; the Lord taken away. Many people drop out during this deepening process, but to those who can stay the course comes the final stage; (3) Regeneration: real joy, deep down and suffusing the whole being, joy which the world cannot give, but which the world cannot take away; joy from the mystical marriage relationship with the divine Lord, which is heaven.
Think of it, if you like, in terms of the classical philosophical concept of end, cause, and effect: the dream or plan, the working at it, and the fulfillment. Take building a house, for example. The architect's blueprint and the finished building are identical, really, except that the first is only in the imagination and intention, whereas the finished building is made of stone, bricks and timber. The "end" must be followed by the "cause" before it can become the "effect." The noise and confusion of the building operations are necessary to bring the dream to life. So with the Christian experience. The original rejoicing (Matthew's feasting) represents the "end in view" - the architect's plan. This has to be followed by a period of extreme temptation, analogous to the turmoil of the building process, before we can actually become what, in the days of our dreaming, we had hoped to be. The Bridegroom has to be taken away in order that we may make the necessary adjustments in preparation for the promised union.
The remarkable thing is that Jesus Himself, as to His infirm humanity, underwent just the same process, for He was tempted in all points like as we are. He experienced a sense of alienation from the Divine, a feeling of desertion; and then, when apparently He was utterly unprotected, He was bombarded by the most excruciating attacks from the combined forces of all the devils in hell. At the apex of this assault, which carried Him up onto the cross, He cried, with infinite pathos, quoting Psalm 22:1: "My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?" (We have the very syllables that fell from His lips, in His native Aramaic Language: "Eloi, Eloi, Lama Sabachthani?") A terrible cry indeed! And a terrible thought, that God could have forsaken him in that hour of his greatest need. Had God really forsaken him? Surely not! As a matter of fact, Jesus was on the very point of victory over the hells, the redemption of mankind from the power of evil. His glorification was about to be accomplished, the complete union or merging of the human with the Divine. Jesus and the Father had never been so close together as at that moment. Yet he cried out from the cross: "My God, why hast Thou forsaken me!" Why? Because he had to experience a sense of desertion before the full glorification could be achieved. This feeling that he was being left to his own finite resources was the temptation! If he had felt the overwhelming power of God which was actually flowing within him at that time, there would have been no temptation! He would have suffered no pain; his infirm humanity would not have perished; the Redemption would have been short-circuited, and mankind would have been back where it was. The agony of the crucifixion was real enough, we can be sure of that! He was not play-acting when He made that despairing cry, which has echoed down through the ages: "Eloi, Lama Sabachthani?" Abandoned! Deserted! Cast off! It was his crowning temptation.
I remember when I was a little boy, going with my father to a big London store during the Christmas rush. I turned aside to look at something, and when I looked back, father had disappeared! I rushed hither and thither, pushing my way through the throngs of shoppers; I panicked, I screamed! Then suddenly, there he was! All was well. The agony of desertion is real enough, and if we have never felt it, it is probably because we are too self-sufficient, too complacent. If you have any sensitivity at all, you will recognize what I am referring to. You enter with excited anticipation on some new phase of spiritual development, and then everything seems to slump. The young minister leaves seminary and enters his first pastorate with such wonderful dreams and ideals, but finds himself plunged in dull routine; there is a general lack of response, nobody seems interested in religion, so that soon his own interest lags. He thought the Lord was with him, but now he feels he has been deserted, abandoned, left alone. A young couple believe they are deeply in love; they go through the marriage ceremony, vowing eternal loyalty to each other. They kneel together in the presence of God. Who could doubt that He is with them, as they set off on the road of life together? But soon, all too soon, the honeymoon is over and things begin to go wrong. Oh God, why hast Thou forsaken us?
"God-forsaken" is a kind of slang expression in England; I don't know whether it is in America. People talk about a "God-forsaken old man in a God-forsaken house in a God-forsaken town." The thing about swearing and bad language is that it involves the most terrible concepts, but tosses them about as if they were a kind of joke. God-forsaken. No joke that! The suffering of the sensitive Christian, who has tasted the joy of the Lord's presence but now has the Lord taken from him, is a thousand times worse than the rather phony gloom of the long-faced puritan who probably has never been with the Lord at all! Suffering is due to the deprivation of love; the deeper the love, the greater the suffering when things go wrong. That is why Jesus suffered so acutely. "Was there any sorrow like unto his sorrow?" Thousands of poor wretches were crucified, and many have undergone worse physical torments than that, but none suffered as Jesus did. Those who are nearest to God suffer most when He seems to forsake them. It takes some considerable spiritual development and maturity to produce Despair, such as we find it in Psalm 22, or in Psalm 130: "Out of the depths have I cried unto thee, O Lord"; or in the Book of Job, or in Jeremiah's Lamentations. It is a very advanced condition. Have you ever attained to it? Perhaps not. It is a thing to work up to. Yet we must not seek it for its own sake. Our plea must be, "Lead us not into temptation." We should cry with the Psalmist: "Hide not thy face from me; leave me not, neither forsake me, O God of my salvation." (Psalm 27:9) We should just love, and love, and love; the despair will come. And in that hell we shall find a mysterious and secret path to heaven.
It is for the sole purpose of deepening and refining our love of God that temptations are permitted to assault us, even to despair. The Bridegroom is taken away, only so that we may love Him more deeply. The body is removed, so that we can learn not to depend on the body, but to glory in the spiritual presence. The famine is allowed to afflict us, so that we can learn to say, like the prophet Habakkuk: "Although the fig-tree shall not blossom, nor the vine bear fruit; although the fields cease to yield their harvest, and there is no herd in the stalls: Yet will I rejoice in the Lord, I will joy in the God of my salvation" (Habakkuk 3:17, 18). During temptation, and as a result of it, there can be developing within us a yet deeper love of God: tried, tested and immovable, depending on no rewards. The time will come (perhaps soon, perhaps not until mature old age, perhaps not in this world at all but in the after-life) when we can honestly say, "It is finished." And the next stage? "The Lord has risen: He is glorified! Good Friday has yielded to Easter!" Then we shall be content that the Lord forsook us, because of the joy of His return; and we shall feast with greater appetite and gladness than would have been possible except for that great fast.
There are people, deeply spiritual people, who think that God has deserted His world at the present time; and in many ways it does seem like it. The fashionable word for it is "alienation." The existentialist movement is a product of this sense of alienation. The God-is-Dead movement was a dramatic way of expressing what seemed to many to be God's retreat from mankind, His extreme "disinterestedness" in what happens to His world. Swedenborg announced two hundred years ago that the Lord had come again, and a new and purer form of Christianity was being launched. But between God's revelation to us, in the writings of Swedenborg, and the world's full acceptance of His Presence, there must be a period of reconstruction, of doubt or soul-searching, the challenging of old values, and experiment with all sorts of new ones, such as we see going on around us today. Jesus at His Second Coming has been crucified anew, and is now lying in the tomb. But, do not run away! He will rise again, resplendent! He will enter the New Jerusalem, His Bride; and the marriage will be consummated with all the greater joy because of its long postponement.
End, Cause, Effect. Though the "end" seems to be lost sight of and forgotten in the confusion of the building operations, it is there all the time. The blueprint is constantly being referred to by the Divine Architect who is controlling the whole project from behind the scenes. The Lord is never really absent. He is actually nearest when He seems farthest away. So, however bleak and deserted you feel, be sure He is very near you all the time. However hopeless, useless and unproductive we may seem to be, He is with us, implanting those spiritual qualities and graces which will one day blossom and bear fruit. The Lord seems far away during winter, but, with the revolving cycle of the seasons, the sudden outburst of the springtime proves He was there working out of sight through the darkest days. The Lord is never absent! If He were absent for one instant, the whole universe would collapse and perish. Hope and labor on! - and, instead of dining with Him among tax-collectors and sinners and Pharisees, you will be invited to feast at a wedding banquet in the courts of heaven. "Blessed are they that are called to the marriage supper of the Lamb."