Cords and Bonds (Tenebrae Vespers)

Video of Vespers is here. The sermon begins around the 29:45 mark.

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Why do the nations rage and the peoples engage in empty plotting? Everyone stands united against Yahweh and His Anointed, saying, “Let us burst their bonds apart and cast their cords from us” (Psalm 2:1-3). Today is the day of the rage of nations; today is the day when the peoples engage in empty plotting against the Son. From the day of the raising of Lazarus, they made plans to put Jesus to death, thinking that they could rid this world of God in the process. Because if you want to be God, if you want to have that so-called freedom that is freedom from every law, every stricture, everything that restricts you from being who you think you are, everything that keeps you back from doing whatever is right in your own eyes, then you must kill God, who represents everything you hate. All you see in the word or idea of God is bonds and cords, restrictions, do this and don’t do that, the eternal “no” to all the things you think are good.

So we throw off His bonds and cords; we say that Jesus is the epitome of tolerance and allowance, who wants me to be whoever I think I am. We give His Name to the “consciousness” of everything that, conveniently, I already thought was good before I talked about Jesus. But in the backs of our minds, we know that Jesus says the words so blasphemous to our idol of self: deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow Me. So we have to kill Him, and remake Him in our own image; raise up from the dead some approximation of our ideal Jesus.

Why is there so much rage against Yahweh and His Anointed? Sometimes the reasons are available: those who claim to represent God have done harm—sometimes grievous and bitter harm—to people and caused them to turn away from Him altogether. Jesus has words about that, and they involve millstones and deep water. God grant it that those who are harmed may hear of the Anointed who let Himself be abused, in order to give beauty in the place of those ashes.

Apart from the ones who can identify those who have harmed them in the Name of Jesus, there is an unidentifiable rage against God that doesn’t seem to have any direct cause. It is the rage of unbelief, rage against Someone who supposedly doesn’t exist. It is the rage of those who say that they have burst the bonds of religion and thrown off the cords that restricted them. Now they see clearly. But instead of acting like free agents in a godless world, they are often bound to continue their rage, collecting the reasons, and the data, and the evidence, arguing in mockery and vehemence against any god or savior. They think that the slavery of no gods and no masters—slavery only to myself—is true freedom; and the freedom that God promises in Christ is actually slavery.

Even leaving aside that kind of atheism, there’s a practical atheism that lives not in the freedom of Christ, but in the freedom of the flesh. It comes naturally to us: we do what whatever we were going to do anyway, and we cover it over with a veneer of religiosity. Me and my own personal Jesus, by ourselves apart from the hypocrisy and difficulty of other religious people. I’m authentic; “they” are always the hypocrites. It’s an atheism that talks about Jesus in the past tense: if Jesus were around today, I know what He would do or say.

And isn’t it still in the backs of our minds somewhere that life as a Christian is actually a kind of restriction, a kind of slavery? That being in Christ is all about what you should do and not do, all about being right and doing right and living right? In spite of all the Scriptures to the contrary, all we see is a coming judgment, before which we better get ourselves right with God, so that we can be judged, at least, good enough to get in the door.

For all of us—whether in our natural, practical atheism or in our bitter, raging atheism—our mistake is that we think we start free, and then decide whether we are going to submit to slavery or throw off the bonds and cords of whatever kind of slavery God represents to us. We, like those who heard Jesus’ talking about being set free, say, “We are offspring of Abraham—or offspring of generations of religious people, or offspring of enlightened understanding, or offspring of authentic, true, original Christianity, or offspring of self-will and independence—we have never been enslaved to anyone. How is it that You say, You will become free?

But we don’t start free. Everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. And the root of all sin is a refusal to hear Jesus and everything He says—not just the parts we like—as He speaks words from the Father, words of eternal life. And because His word echoes everywhere throughout this world, we have two choices: listen to Him or kill Him. The flesh can see only slavery with Him; it is impossible, we think, that to be slaves to Christ is the only kind of freedom that there is. He says, If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed. We hear the opposite: if the Son sets you free from yourself, you will be enslaved. We are excellent at denying that our constant self-obsession, our ongoing attempts to justify ourselves before other people, to make ourselves right in their eyes, our attempts at self-creation are the very definition of slavery. We will never be able to free ourselves, either from our self-justification, or from what we think others demand of us.

But what if it’s not our clear-eyed vision that see slavery in God’s Law and God’s Christ? What if it’s our sin that has blinded us to what is true, so that we can never see clearly? What if it’s our sinful flesh that continues to whisper lies in our ears, like God is holding back; God doesn’t want you to be like Him; the life of God is slavery and death; God doesn’t want you to be happy? What if we’ve been lied to and we like that lie? The fact is that for those who refuse to see the mercy of God in Christ, who will only see Him as a task-master, He will be that. For the nations and the peoples who would rather hold on to their own measly authority and power rather than submit to the merciful authority and power of Christ, they will find the sort of God they think He is.

He who sits in the heavens laughs; the Lord holds them in derision. Then He will speak to them in His wrath, and terrify them in His fury, saying, ‘As for Me, I have set My King on Zion, My holy hill.’” To His Son, the King, He says, ‘Ask of Me, and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession. You shall break them with a rod of iron and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.’ … Kiss the Son, lest He be angry, and you perish in the way. His wrath burns quickly.” One way or another, every knee will bow and every tongue confess Him as Lord.

But even though He has the right and the power and the authority; even though it would be justice of the highest sort; He does not come demanding that right. He doesn’t come as a tyrant, with the rod of iron, to make slaves of His creatures, to bend them to His unyielding and dictatorial will. The Father did not send Him into the world to condemn the world—we’ve got that pretty well under control ourselves—but He sent Him into the world in order that the world might be saved through Him, saved from ourselves, our self-obsession, our self-destruction.

Though people persist in thinking God a tyrant, hell-bent on destroying what He made in love, how He appeared in the world was anything but that. He walks around giving people back what was lacking in their bodies and lives—sight, hearing, walking, life itself. He gives them and us the signs that in Him is eternal healing. He tells people that in Him they have God’s full love and mercy, that what separated them from life and hope and peace has been done away with, and everything is made right and whole. For all those bonds, for that kind of slavery, both religious power and state power are united against Him: Crucify Him! And he delivered Him over to their will.

He who is accused as a tyrant and enslaver of independent people is put to death by those same people. He takes the bonds of slavery to sin as their own, holding out His own hands and feet to be bound and nailed to a cross. He submits to their tyranny, as they themselves suffer under the tyranny of death and the devil. The one who is bound and crucified takes also the tyranny and lordship of death, lets death exercise its power one last time. But the psalmist knows that this submission to death is His victory: Bind the festal sacrifice with cords, up to the horns of the altar (Psalm 118:27)! The altar is the cross, and it is there that He breaks the power of death forever.

All our lives we struggle against the bonds of sin and death, and all we succeed in doing is tangling ourselves ever tighter, until our bodies are stilled in death. But He was bound by death in order to break those bonds and free all whom death held. He rises from the dead, and death is no longer His lord. He who was dead and is now alive is past death’s reach forever. “He broke the age-bound chains of hell; the bars from heav’n’s high portals fell. Let hymns of praise His triumph tell” (LSB 464:4). And the risen Lord continues to bind people to Himself, which means to be bound to Life forever. He says, through the prophet Hosea: I took them up by their arms, but they did not know that I healed them. I drew them with cords of [human] kindness, with the bonds of love (Hosea 11:3-4). His “slavery” is a slavery to healing, life, and the fullness of what it means to be human: free from sin and death, alive forever in Christ. These are the cords of kindness and the bonds of love. O Yahweh, I am Your servant, the son of Your maidservant; You have loosed my bonds (Psalm 116:16)

He is a tyrant to the sin that remains in us. He wields an iron rod to dash to pieces and destroy what is still evil in us and in His creation. Kiss the Son as His subjects, but not in fear of His wrath. He is the only benevolent Lord. Blessed is the one who takes refuge in Him. Blessed is the one who, by faith, sees that the Holy God, whose presence sinners can only experience as wrath, is the same God who hides Himself in flesh, so that you can take refuge in Him. Blessed are all who are convinced in Him, convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor any other thing in creation is able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus, our Lord (Romans 8:38-39). “Your cords of love, my Savior, bind me to You forever, I am no longer mine” (LSB 453:6). Be merciful to me, O God, be merciful to me, for in You my soul takes refuge; in the shadow of your wings I will take refuge, until the destroying storms pass by (Psalm 57:1). Rock of ages, cleft for me; let me hide myself in Thee.

Beloved, “Here we have a firm foundation, here the refuge of the lost: Christ, the Rock of our salvation, is the name of which we boast; Lamb of God, for sinners wounded, sacrifice to cancel guilt! None shall ever be confounded who on Him their hope have built” (LSB 451:4). “The strife is over, the battle done; now is the victor’s triumph won; now be the song of praise begun” (LSB 464:1).

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, 4/9/20


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