Video of Tenebrae Vespers here.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
“If you watched sins carefully, Yahweh, O Lord, who could stand?” (Psalm 130:3). That is, if God deemed our sins worthy of His condemnation, who would be able to stand up under such a judgment? If He watches carefully for transgression, counts them up, marks them down, and deems them hellish, who can argue with His judgment? No one. And God has marked them down. Nothing escapes His eternal eye. He has counted every last sin from every last sinner, and we have all been deemed unrighteous. No one is left standing upright, righteous and pure. All the excuses, all the reasons, all the rationalizations, all the efforts, all the words of justification for ourselves and our actions come to an end. Every mouth is shut, because every eye today beholds Him.
The cross is the end of all words and actions, of any thought that might say to God or to anyone else: I am clean and guiltless. “Do we pass that cross unheeding, breathing no repentant vow, though we see You wounded, bleeding, see Your thorn-encircled brow?” (LSB 423:2) “Ye who think of sin but lightly nor suppose the evil great here may view its nature rightly, here its guilt may estimate” (LSB 451:3). This is what sin does; you can estimate from the cross the price of your guilt, and I of mine.
But what does this have to do with love? The psalmist prays, “Wait in hope, Israel, for Yahweh. For with Yahweh is steadfast love and mercy, and with Him He makes abundant redemption. He will redeem Israel from all her sins” (Psalm 130:7-8). With Yahweh is steadfast love and mercy, and Christians claim that this shameful, bloody, horrible death is the love of God made visible. Some would like to separate the love from the cross. They would make the cross a judgment on the refusal of people to receive Jesus’ message of love, and if only we would learn from His submission to those who kill Him, we could begin to love and make this world a better place in which to live. It makes a lot of sense: Jesus’ message was love and the crucifixion was the unfortunate result of trying to teach inveterate haters how to love. Surely we can do better.
But what that picture doesn’t include is the fact that the entire Scriptures together proclaim that the cross is the culmination, the zenith, the embodiment—we might say the incarnation of Love itself. In other words, the cross is not a tragic outcome of a well-lived life, as if the death of Jesus was just an example of what happens to every teacher of goodness, love, and a universal light. How many times does Jesus say that His death is necessary? John is abundantly clear in his Gospel that the cross is the goal, not a regrettable detour on the way to the really important things. We preach Christ crucified, Paul says, and we will know nothing among you but Him and Him crucified.
This is what Love looks like in the midst of lovelessness. This is what the Law of God looks like in the midst of lawlessness. Do not try to look past the cross, around the cross, beyond the cross, as if it were only a side-note or only incidentally connected to the Faith. If you want to see God in this world, there is no other place to see Him. If you want to see God’s Love and God’s redemption of this world, you will see it only there, on Golgotha.
Because, when God marked and counted up all the sins of the world, there was found no one who could stand up under its weight. So within the singular will of the eternal God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—the Son took the weight of flesh in order to take the weight of sin. A man is not identical with sin, but only a Man can become sin for us. So: “Mark the sacrifice appointed, see who bears the awful load; ’tis the Word, the Lord’s anointed, Son of Man and Son of God” (LSB 451:3). The one who was with Yahweh in the beginning is Yahweh; the only God has made known the God who cannot be seen. See Who bears the awful load: He who is both Son of Man, born of Mary, and Son of God from eternity.
But while the cross is at the center of all things, stretching its arms to encompass all of Israel and all of the world, all the sins and all the lawlessness of every person, it is not yet the whole of the story, as we know well. It is necessary that the Son of Man be lifted up, but it is also necessary that the Son of Man rise from the dead. The redemption is of one single piece, like the seamless tunic woven from top to bottom: Jesus’ death and resurrection are one event, which is why the Church always celebrates one single service, from Thursday evening through the beginning of our celebration of the resurrection.
The disciples on the road to Emmaus missed that it was all of one piece. They said, “We had thought that He was the one to redeem Israel” (Luke 24:21). They thought He was the answer to Psalm 130 and to the prayer of Psalm 25: “Redeem Israel, O God, out of all her troubles” (Psalm 25:22). That is, they thought that Jesus’ death was the end, and though they were saying these things to Him, they were foolish and slow of heart to believe everything that the prophets had spoken. It is all of a single piece, from beginning to end, from top to bottom. We cannot see past or around or beyond the cross, but we believe the resurrection of Christ, and so the resurrection of every body, and the life everlasting.
This Man, on this cross, risen from this grave, is the answer to all the prayers of all the prophets and psalmists. He has redeemed Israel from all her sins, all her lawlessness. From Egypt on, the firstborn sons of Israel were redeemed with the price of a donkey; from Jerusalem, forward and backward, the sinners are redeemed for the price of the firstborn Son. And so Paul writes to Titus, “[T]he grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness [Psalm 129:8 LXX] and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works” (Titus 2:11-14).
The grace of God has appeared to put an end to ungodliness in us. Jesus has undergone His passion to put an end to our worldly passions. The cross trains us—willingly, because we have been given the Spirit of God; unwillingly, because our sinful and lawless flesh still clings to us—trains us to renounce every evil as we wait for the appearance of the one who gave Himself to redeem Israel and the whole creation. He has purified us for His own possession, “that we might be His own and live under Him in His Kingdom, and serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness.”
And now “the royal banners forward go; the cross shows forth redemption’s flow, where He, by whom our flesh was made, our ransom in His flesh has paid. … Fulfilled is all that David told in sure prophetic song of old, that God the nations’ king should be and reign in triumph from the tree, on whose hard arms, so widely flung, the weight of this world’s ransom hung, the price of humankind to pay and spoil the spoiler of the prey” (LSB 455:1, 3-4). “Sing, my tongue, the glorious battle; sing the ending of the fray. Now above the cross, the trophy, sound the loud, triumphant lay; tell how Christ, the world’s redeemer, as a victim won the day” (454:1).
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.
— Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 3/27/18