Video of Vespers is here. The sermon begins around the 50:40 mark.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Tonight we draw near to the throne of grace. Because it is Good Friday, we might be inclined to think that the cross is that throne. And, without a doubt, St. John makes it very clear that Jesus was enthroned upon the cross, glorified and exalted. He is not the sort of King who takes His throne by force in this world. If it were so, Jesus says, “My servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But My Kingdom is not from the world.” He is a King, but He is the King who bears witness to the Truth, which is that He is the one sent from God to save and give life to the world. He bears witness by being sarcastically and ironically crowned as the King which He is, but whom many would mock rather than hear His voice. “Behold your King!” Pilate proclaims, more truly than He knows. The mob would rather have all the passing kingdoms of this world, ruled by Caesar, than the eternal Kingdom of Jesus—and that’s no different than it is today. And Pilate’s inscription, which he refuses to change, is “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.” And so He is; and not of the Jews only, but of the whole world. And this is His throne, where He is crowned with thorns and His royal hands are nailed to the arms of the cross.
Yes, Jesus’ throne in this world will always look like the cross, as His Body, the Church, continues to be crucified by the suffering and rejection of this world. That doesn’t change. But you cannot draw near to that cross-shaped throne by the usual, earthly ways. You can’t recall it mentally, since you were not there when they crucified our Lord. You can’t go back in a time machine. You can’t go there in a mystical, imaginative, how-it-must-have-been way. Jesus never intended you to draw near in any of those ways to that Roman cross, or to His historical crucifixion. We preach Christ crucified not as a mental exercise or as something you have to conjure up in order to be close to Him.
And yet, we do need to draw near to Him. The question is, where? Where can we find His throne of grace, in order to receive mercy and find grace to help at just the right time? Because if we do not know where and when to draw near to Him, or how to find Him, there can never be full confidence or boldness. In the ancient world, if you were going to enter the presence of the king, you had to be invited. You had to know that the king would give you a hearing. Otherwise, you might just as well be going to your death.
The queen Esther tells Mordecai, “All the king’s servants and the people of the king’s provinces know that if any man or woman goes to the king inside the inner court without being called, there is but one law—to be put to death, except the one to whom the king holds out the golden scepter so that he may live” (Esther 4:11). Esther, for her part, decides the risk is worth it, and says that she will “go to the king, though it is against the law, and if I perish, I perish” (4:16). Esther had no confidence that the king would hear her, rather than kill her. Her boldness flowed from her conviction to help her people, not from anything that the king had said.
But when it comes to God’s inner court, who could have any conviction of the righteousness of his or her case? How can we be sure that we will receive mercy, rather than death? How can we be confident that we will find grace to help in time of our need? We need a confidence and a boldness grounded firmly in something outside ourselves. We need an invitation from the King to appear before Him, and we need an assurance that when we draw near to the throne, we will find a throne of grace and not a throne of wrath.
How can we be confident that we will find grace to help, at just the right time? The word for “time” in Hebrews 4:16 is literally the “good time.” It is a particular and right time. No doubt, you have felt the times when you needed help, when you needed someone to come to your aid. You could not see a way out of the problem, or you did not know how you would be able to work through whatever it was. And when you prayed, you did not hear an answer or receive a sign. Sometimes, perhaps, you did receive a way out. More than once, when I was growing up, my parents prayed for the financial help to continue sending my brothers and me to a Lutheran school, and at just the right time, when they had no other recourse, God used someone to allow that to continue. More times than I can count, similar things have happened to our family in the churches where we have been. The key is that it is not when I am most convinced it is the right time for help, but when God, who alone is good, has just the right time in His wisdom.
On a far greater scale than my own individual and family needs—though, certainly, God is not far from each one of us—on a far greater scale, at just the right time, God sent His own Son into the world. Consider how many people must have longed for and hoped for the coming of God’s Anointed One in the thousands of years before Jesus appeared; imagine how many times people must have thought, “This would be a good time for the Messiah to appear.” But it was not in their time, or when they thought it was best, that God sent His Son. It was in the fullness of His own good time. Or do we think we know better than God what would be good or when the time is right? I suspect that’s much closer to the heart of things than we like to admit.
Nevertheless, regardless of when we think a good time is, or what help we think would be best, God has His good time, and it is tied to this good Day. That Friday was the right and good time for the King to be revealed in His crucified glory. But this Friday is the right and good time for us to find mercy here and now. The throne to which we draw near is not the cross itself, in a mystical, intellectual, or emotional way. The cross is the means by which God allows us to draw near to Him. Because of the cross, we know we can draw near to His throne in confidence, because we know exactly where He has promised to deliver to us what happened in Jesus’ death and resurrection. We know that in Baptism God takes us to the cross, and in the Supper He brings the cross to us—not in a metaphor, an allegory, or an illustration, but physically and really.
Jesus appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself. He did not, as the priests of the old covenant, bring a sacrifice and a blood that was not His own. He offers His own blood, and by the perfection of His suffering and death, He “entered, not into holy places made with hands,” like the earthly temple, “which are copies of the true things, but into heaven itself now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf” (Hebrews 9:26, 24). And when that sacrifice was complete, offered by Jesus as a single sacrifice for sins, by which He perfected for all time those who are being made holy, “He sat down at the right hand of God” (10:12-14). By this entire movement, from the Father to the earth to the cross; and from the tomb back to the Father, Jesus does not just show the way, but He opens and makes the way; He is the way.
So when we draw near to the Father, we do not do so through a curtain in an earthly temple, as the high priest used to do once a year. We draw near to the Father through the curtain that is Jesus’ own flesh; we enter the holy places of God not by the blood of bulls and goats, but by the blood of Jesus. Because Christ is the full and complete forgiveness of sins, there is no more offering for sin. “Therefore, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus,” through the curtain that is His flesh, “let us draw near with a true heart, in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience,” plagued with all that we have thought and said and done, “and our bodies washed with pure water” (10:18-22). Here the King holds out to us the golden scepter of His mercy, the assurance that He will hear us and give us life rather than death.
And so it all comes together: we have been washed, body and soul, in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and so we have confidence that the sacrifice of Jesus is once and for all enough and complete and finished; by His flesh and blood we draw near to the Father, having been called dear children because of our dear Brother. “He is able to save to the uttermost”—all the way—“those who draw near to God through Him, since He always lives to intercede for them” (Hebrews 7:25). “Christ Jesus is the one who died—but even more, the one who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us” (Romans 8:34).
And because Jesus Himself intercedes and prays for us, we draw near to God in confidence and full assurance, knowing that we will find mercy and help. “Let us draw near then, with boldness/confidence, to the throne of grace, in order that we may receive mercy and we may find grace to help in just the right time” (Hebrews 4:16). Here is your faith, now and forever, without which it is impossible to please God because true faith always trusts in the One whom God Himself has sent, who is Himself the divine Son. “[W]hoever would draw near to God must believe that He exists and that He rewards those who seek Him” (11:6). He rewards those who seek Him in Christ as surely as He rewarded Christ with resurrection and glory.
“Since we have such a hope, we are very bold” (2 Corinthians 3:12). God has realized His eternal purpose for you “in Christ Jesus our Lord, in whom we have boldness and access with confidence through our faith in Him” (Ephesians 3:12). And we “are [God’s] house if indeed we hold fast our confidence and our boasting in our hope” (Hebrews 3:6). “Therefore,” my beloved brothers and sisters, “do not throw away your confidence, which has a great reward” (10:35). However long it takes, however it comes, He helps those who seek Him in Christ, even if we do not see it until the resurrection. “So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light, momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen,” everything you see now, “are transient,” temporary, disappearing; “but the things that are unseen are eternal” (2 Corinthians 4:16-18).
Today you have drawn near, by the eternal Word of God, to those unseen, eternal things. When you eat and drink His Supper, you draw near to those unseen, eternal things. As Hebrews puts it, “[Y]ou have drawn near to Mount Zion and the city of the living God, heavenly Jerusalem, and myriads of angels, a gathering for a festival” (12:22). That festival is the festival of the resurrection, for which all the angels and saints are waiting. Even now, God is gathering all His own, preparing them to celebrate that paschal feast in sincerity and truth.
That is what makes this Friday Good: the one who alone is Good willingly and freely draws near to you, so that you will draw near to Him. This is not a day for mourning the death of someone we have loved. This is the beginning of the victory march, when all the suffering verbs are put to death in the night of darkness from the sixth hour to the ninth hour. This is the beginning of the end for all those who would claim victory by overpowering and oppressing other people for whom Christ died. For now we have only seen the cross, the death, the suffering. We have walked by faith and not by sight. But the morning of life is coming. Jesus rested from all His work of salvation, and then, on the eighth day, the new day, He began in His very body the new life He gives to us. Today is the prelude, but you can already hear the theme echoing through time and eternity: sing, my tongue, the glorious battle; sing the ending of the fray. Today Christ, the world’s redeemer, as a victim won the day (LSB 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, 4/14/22